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CD review: compositions by Annabel Rooney, Ben Parry, and Iain Quinn

15 May 2020

Roderic Dunnett listens to three contemporary composers for choirs


AT A time when hearing live choral and organ music in a cathedral, church, or college chapel is impossible, appealing single-composer CDs of contemporary church music are available on the Regent label, recorded by the chapel choirs of Christ’s and Selwyn, Cambridge.

The choir at Christ’s College, directed by David Rowland, have devoted themselves, on “As seed bursts forth” (REGCD 525), to the music of Annabel McLauchlan Rooney, a college alumna who, as a cellist, played in the National Youth Orchestra.

Rooney’s beautiful opening Magnificat, with a light-stepping ostinato in the organ, gives a taste of things to come. O nata lux, most famously set by Tallis, avoids numbing clusters and thus gains a welcome forward momentum. “Hear my Prayer”, with enchanting canonic touches, is one of many lovely tracks.

This composer has a gift for evoking echoes of the dancing medieval, even troubadour, carol: “Bless the Lord”, “Sweet was the song the Virgin sang”, and more obviously Gaudete; plus a joyous Jubilate with vivacious offset organ part. For George Herbert’s “Come my way”, she invokes interesting independent movement in the lower voices.

Her choice of texts is fascinating: the 17th-century Francis Quarles (also set by Finzi); the Victorian clerics and hymn-writers Thomas Toke Lynch and William Romanis; and Alice Meynell (1847-1922), who became a Roman Catholic, and was admired by Ruskin.


SELWYN’s two offerings, finessed by their Canadian-born director of music, Sarah MacDonald, shed light on a pair of composers, Ben Parry, and Iain Quinn.

Parry’s disc (REGCD 542) includes a Magnificat of delicious élan, bouncy, syncopated, and joyously celebratory, with empowering organ interludes and striking keyboard and pedal patterns (for “He hath put down”). If one could chart a line of descent, one might think that Parry, who sang in the choir at King’s and is now its assistant director (in between times, singing, composing, and arranging for the Swingle Singers, and then pursuing a distinguished career in Scotland), drew inspiration from an earlier generation: Joubert, Mathias, John Gardner, Peter Wishart, Kenneth Leighton: they are in that vein.

In “I sing of a maiden”, taking on Patrick Hadley’s unmatched Cambridge setting of the anonymous Middle English poem, light arpeggios — suggesting the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit — underlie a delicious, simple, boy-like solo from Grace Wood, the work quite imaginatively extended to seven minutes.

Another soprano (Katie Guest) brings soothing additions to a Gaelic Lullaby; and Charlie Pemberton to the “Aldeburgh Carol” – the first clutch, and three of the last items setting the poems of the contemporary lyricist Garth Bardsley. Stand-out moments for the lower voices are rarer: something that might perhaps be addressed.

Upper voices double sweetly in the carol “The Linden Tree” (with piano). Most items (“Gabriel’s News”, Il est né, le divin enfant, etc.) are Christmas-focused, as the disc’s title, “Music for Christmas”, implies; and all have a simple charm.

Iain Quinn, was a chorister at Llandaff Cathedral under Michael Smith, but has based himself for most of his wide-spanning musical career in the United States, his many sorties embracing (intriguingly) a recital in Belarus and a lectureship at St Petersburg. This disc (REGCD 503) represents, he says, “the core of my composition”.

If so, the rest may well be desirable, too. Quinn has a mastery of flowing counterpoint, the words always lucid. Continuum, an organ solo with tremulant, seems, to spellbinding effect, almost immobile: mysterious, persuasive, its intimate oscillations to some degree left to the interpreter (Shanna Hart, who contributes to the liveliness of Quinn’s Magnificat setting).

Her young colleague, Alexander Goodwin, performs to brilliant effect Quinn’s sensational Toccata on the Easter Hymn Victimae Paschali Laudes. Several of Quinn’s pieces are strongly evocative of both plainsong and its 20th-century later French exponents, and the build-up is tremendous, just as one would want of a post-Widor, -Gigout, and -Dubois rampage. The brief Adagio close, squeezing Gregorian chant into an almost a Bach-like stretto, is just as riveting.

In both a Nunc Dimittis and the title piece, “The Garment of Holiness” (Ecclesiasticus 50), Quinn unfolds an exquisite tenor line, the first emerging from Messiaen-like chords, the latter (a solo from Mark Darling) gaining extra expressiveness as other solos float, and upper voices cascade, above.

Salvator mundi (also famously set by Tallis) has the kind of refined compression that Tavener at his best could manage. Quinn’s sleeve-notes are as lucid as his compositions; and that is saying something.



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