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Music review: St Mary of Magdala (Chandos), and other CDs

19 June 2020

Roderic Dunnett listens to recent recordings of choral and organ music


A RECENT CD and download re­­lease will attract many enthusiasts for the music of Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). Since its foundation by Brian Couzens (1933-2015), Chandos Records has led the way with recordings of British music.

Couzens was previously an admired arranger of film music: hence Chandos has also reconstructed film scores by William Alwyn, Richard Addinsell, Malcolm Arnold, and Vaughan Williams — and Bliss. His music for Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come is perhaps his most celebrated in this genre.

Now Chandos has issued the first recording of Bliss’s half-hour cantata Mary of Magdala. With Dame Sarah Connolly as the upper soloist, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, it is a top-notch performance.

On the same disc (CHAN 5242) are Bliss’s orchestral Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (Blow’s mel­ody for a Coronation Anthem setting Psalm 23), each section based on a biblical text; and The Enchant­ress, a scintillating scena (or solo cantata) based on the Greek bucolic poet Theocritus, in which a jilted Syracusan sorceress invokes dark powers — with eerie orchestration — to lure her lover back to her. This piece was composed in 1951 for Kathleen Ferrier, and in fact Chan­dos previously released a brilliant rival recording (CHAN 7073) by the mezzo-soprano Linda Finnie (with his Colour Symphony, composed for the 1922 Gloucester Three Choirs).

Mary of Magdala (1962) was one of Bliss’s last works. Its vivid text was woven by his regular collaborator, Christopher Hassall, who died that same year before its première at the Worcester Three Choirs. In the past, I have suggested that this was not necessarily top-drawer Bliss, but on this fine first recording many, even I, might disagree with that judgement. The opening chorus (the BBC Symphony Chorus), and their next — glancing back to Mary’s anointing of Christ — makes a strong impact.

Mary’s first solo as she prepares to go to the tomb is vividly worded and assuredly sung, the memorable ex­­pressiveness of Connolly, evoking considerable pathos and indeed innocence; and as she shyly seeks for the tomb (”Lord of the cedars of Lebanon, ravaged, brought low, I
am come as a bird to your fallen branch”), one gets a flavour of the quality and freshness of Hassall’s poetic text.

The oboe preface to the third chorus, and a flute for a Song of Songs adaptation “Loveliest of the Roses of Sharon”, are incredibly touching. Although a descending phrase is a little overdone, Bliss’s management of his widely varied and sometimes swiftly deployed ma­­terial is masterly. As first two Angels (interjecting Christ’s own words, “Woman, why weepest thou?”) and then Christ himself (the nobly reassuring James Platt) respond to her distracted cries, her exclamation of “Rabboni”, which, reiterated, concludes the work, is heartrending.

Bliss demands the full range, which is grist to the mill to the immensely savourable Connolly.


PRIORY RECORDS remains as energetic in promoting sacred choral and organ music. Neil Collier has long showcased cathedral and cap­able parish church choirs. Most of these impress­ive, sometimes very personal, achieve­ments are, I am happy to say, still available.

Among recent gems, is a record­ing of the Dutch Tudor-era master Jan (Pieterszoon) Sweelinck, who wrote some of the finest sets of vari­ations before Bach. James Lancelot (PRCD1228), an ever thoughtful exponent, is my first choice. This is despite the absence of Sweelinck’s plangent masterpiece Mein junges Leben hat ein End, played on the Hyperion CDA 67421/2 double disc by Christopher Herrick at the organ of Norrfjärden Church, Sweden.

Hyperion has also just issued CDA 68294, championing Herbert Howells’s neglected Missa Sabrin­ensis, previously available only on Chandos (CHAN 24127 double disc). Hyperion’s recording includes Helena Dix, Christine Rice, Benjamin Hulett, Roderick Williams, and the Bach Choir, conducted by David Hill. The disc ends with the fan­fare setting of Howells’s hymn tune Michael (”All my hope on God is founded”), a tune that he wrote be­­fore the death of his son, Michael, from polio, aged nine.

Maurice Duruflé’s organ music is another recent plum from Priory: PRCD 1230, launched with the won­derfully titled Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons, played by Francesca Massey, now organist of Rochester Ca­­thedral, on the Harrison & Harri­son organ at Durham Cathedral, where she was sub-organist.

Sir William Harris’s organ music is amassed on PRCD 1187 double disc. Harris (1883-1973) was assistant organist at St Davids, aged 14, and later moved from Christ Church and New College, Oxford, to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Here, the performer is Durham’s Daniel Cook, recording on the organ there; he was at St Davids from 2011 to 2013. The amazing 42 tracks here in­­clude Harris’s 20-minute Sonata (in A), perfect for Windsor’s chapel; a re­­splendent Fantasy on Easter Hymn (”Jesus Christ is risen today”); and another elaborate, Bachian, one on Thomas Campion’s tune Babylon Streams (Psalm 51), to which Harris brought life and vigour.

Priory’s interpreters, as usual first-rate, include Iain Farrington, playing a welcome discful of his own works: as composer, performer, and conductor. He is indeed a “Live Wire”, as PRCD 1218 is titled.





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