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Beguiling with music    

01 December 2017

Roderic Dunnett listens to recordings from Regent


REGENT RECORDS has made a speciality of church-music and organ repertoire, and has a reputation for high quality, beautiful sound engineering, and decent presentation.

College choirs’ recordings tend to take second place to the many productive cathedral choirs, but one of Regent’s latest, Marvellous Light, a disc of choral music by Ben Ponniah, a former chorister of St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich, and lauded as “a really important new voice in the choral world”, immediately catches the ear (REGCD 495).

It is performed by the mixed choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, a polished ensemble directed by the gifted Canadian-born Sarah MacDonald. She also conducts Ely Cathedral girls’ choir to great effect on a Regent disc, To Be a Light (REGCD 477), featuring contemporary upper-voice Evening Service settings by, notably, Simon Lole, David Briggs, Cecilia McDowall, Wayne Marshall, and MacDonald herself.

That three of the seasonal works here (one is O magnum mysterium) are exquisite, long-drawn-out treatments of Marian texts relating to Christ’s birth might suggest an appealing Christmas present. A proposed stylistic comparison with (say) Poulenc or Duruflé is quite appropriate to suggest the general demeanour. Lenten anthems follow, and settings of four evening anthems. Ponniah’s choice of texts (such as “Bring us, O Lord God”, famously set previously by W. H. Harris), is inspired and inspiring.

Perhaps the only reservation, despite the superb legato singing, is that so many of the items are taken, if not adagio, at a slow andante. A slight saminess prevails if one listens right through (things enliven with the later Requiem in Blue). Hence it is as much the overall feel that appeals as later individual items. But, when the patterning takes its cue from Arvo Pärt or his Baltic contemporaries, the effect is beguiling; and the music generally serves the text well. The girls’ solos on this disc are especially enchanting.

Regent has for some time been producing a series called “A Year at . . .”, featuring music for different parts of the ecclesiastical year. The excellent earliest examples from York, Southwark, and Truro, each including some Advent and Christmas music, boded well. Also for Regent, the Girls’ Choir and Lay Clerks of Southwell Minster produced a disc of Marian anthems, Sing we of that Mother blest, REGCD 487)

The latest offering is from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (REGCD 504). Whereas York included “There is no rose” by John Joubert, and Truro included works by Paul Drayton and David Bednall, whose organ pieces have been recorded on Regent by Paul Walton on the brilliantly voiced instrument in Blackburn Cathedral (REGCD 498, one of five Regent recordings of Bednall’s widely praised works), St Patrick’s choose as their buoyant Christmas anthem “A babe is born” by William Mathias, and, for Epiphany, an arrangement by Dublin’s inspiring choirmaster, Stuart Nicholson, of the 19th-century carol “We three kings” by the American John Henry Hopkins, Jnr.

David Briggs composed a St Patrick’s Service, first recorded here, and predictably applies his magnificent mastery of the keyboard to this spirited work. Matthew Martin, now a fixture in choral repertoire, is featured (Justorum animae), as is the Evening Service in E by the St Patrick’s tenor Ernest Dines, and Philip Moore’s enchanting “It is a thing most wonderful”.

Maintaining the local connection, interestingly, we find also “Sunset and evening star” by George Henry Phillips Hewson, first sub-organist, then organist, of the cathedral from 1920 to 1940, outlasting most of his English contemporaries (although Sir Ivor Atkins lasted 53 years at Worcester).

Still with a Celtic connection, and crossing the 500 mark, Regent recently offered from the Cardiff-based Cantemus Choir (REGCD 502) a recording, Under the Celtic Sky, which mixes sacred works with Welsh, Cornish, and Scottish folksongs. The men’s Stanford opening (“For lo, I raise up”) hits you like an explosion, and rightly so. Mathias naturally features (and four of the exquisite folk-songs are by him); and Britten’s less well-known A hymn of St Columba.

Among contemporaries (Mealor, Rutter) are two works that are a special delight: the Welsh composer and scholar Geraint Lewis’s reflective and then aptly declamatory “The souls of the righteous”; and “Do not be afraid” by Philip Stopford, a bold and wider collection of whose works (In my Father’s house) appears on REGCD 517. That is a disc by the invariably wonderful and hugely professional Truro Cathedral Choir, under Christopher Gray, featuring also, remarkably, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Truro has rewarded us with a long series of outstanding discs: among others, a disc of Renaissance Spanish works by Vivanco, Guerrero, and Lobo: difficult material, and no mean feat (REGCD 491).

Paul Hale, till recently Organist of Southwell Minster, has long been one of the outstanding figures of British organ music among cathedral organists, alike as performer, teacher, and adviser. His disc (The English Cathedral Series, Volume 14: REGCD 248) is as good as any by which to commend Regent’s most impressive series of organ recitals, not least because of the boldness of Hale’s chosen pieces.

No traditional bonbons here. Hale has demonstrated his almost unique command of repertoire with a brilliant, unexpected fanfare by John Cook; Liszt’s poem Orpheus sounds not surprisingly like Franck, as well as Liszt himself. Karg-Elert’s Homage to Handel enables the composer to write one of those large-scale passacaglias that Reger favoured.

But the real contrast here is 38 tracks dedicated to the sensationally beautiful and texturally varied Messe pour les Couvents by Francis Couperin. If organ music reached its zenith with Buxtehude and J. S. Bach, it struck its near-zenith in the solemn and more elegant interludes interspersed here amid choral contributions.

It would be good to hear this potentially poignant work played on the Klais organ of Bath Abbey, so well captured on a recent Regent DVD, played by Peter King, Organist Emeritus of the Abbey. It features a Fantaisie and Fugue by French composer Boëly, and the 94th Psalm by Reubke, plus the exquisite Naïades by Vierne: but the sort of instrument on which Bach’s chorale preludes sound just perfect, as Regent branches out into the DVD (REGDVD 003).

Vierne (his “Epitaphe”, from 24 pièces en style libre) also features on Regent’s latest offering, Orgue Héroïque (REGCD 507), recorded in Rochester Cathedral by Scott Farrell. The thundering arrangement of Mars from Holst’s The Planets makes a pretty dazzling opening to a programme that includes Jongen, Franck, Howells, and Elgar’s “Nimrod”.


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