Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Knight's Progress - Music from the Temple Church Choir

A Knights Progress
Parry, Walton, Muhly, RVW, Tavener, Bairstow, Haydn; Choir of the Temple Church, Greg Morris, Roger Sayer; Signum Recordds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2015
Star rating: 4.0

New work by Nico Muly is the centrepiece of this attractive mixed programme

The centre-piece of this new disc on Signum Records from the Temple Church Choir and its director Roger Sayer, with organist Greg Morris, is a new commission from Nico Muhly, Our present charter. This is performed with a mixed programme of mainly 20th century music with Hubert Parry's I was glad, William Walton's The Twelve, John Tavener's Mother of God, here I stand, RVW's Valiant for Truth, Edward Bairstow's Blessed City, heavenly Salem and Franz Josef Haydn's Te Deum in C major.

For some reason the disc is entitled, A Knight's Progress. The article in the CD booklet does not quite illuminate the reasons for this but I presume it is linked to the fact that the Muhly piece was written to celebrate the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and three of the witnesses to the sealing of the charter are buried in the church.

Sayer, Morris and the choir open with a strong performance of Parry's I was glad, the choir well supported by the recently restored organ. The choir makes a good, firm rich sound with an admirable clarity in the resonant acoustic. There is a hint that the performance loses focus a little in the quieter section but this is a finely confident opening to the recital.

William Walton's The Twelve sets a text by WH Auden. The work was written for Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford where Walton himself had been a chorister. It was premiered in 1963 and the event is described in his autobiography by Tom Driburg who was also there. Walton regarded Auden's words as 'somewhat obscure and difficult-to-set'. Certainly Auden's text did not evoke from Walton the easy fluency that his texts did from Britten, so like other of Walton's late choral music such as the Cantico del Sole, the style is rather edgy and Walton's writing for choir is not without its difficulties. The result is not a comfortable work, with a perhaps deliberate sense of awkwardness to the music, without the melodic freedom of the pre-war works. Walton interleaves solo with choral passages, creating his familiar spiky textures. The choir gives an incisive and confident performance, and this really takes of in the final glorious passages which are suitably joyous.

Nico Muhly's Our present Charter was commissioned for the Choir of the temple Church, Mother-Church of the Common Law, to Celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the Sealing of the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. The work is in four sections with the texts being various, the charter itself, Lewis Hensley's hymn They kingdom come, O God, and the Beatitudes. The opening section, setting words from the charter is quiet and well-made with just a hint of edge to the harmony. The second section opens with solos over sustained choral textures, it is thoughtful and rather spare but develops into a big tutti tune. The Beatitudes use fragments of melody over a busy organ, to create a sense of texture rather than melodic interest, developing into something of a toccata with voices. For the last movement, Mulhy sets up a repetitive, minimalist style choral texture with the upper voices and then introduces choral declamation over the top of it, letting this eventually develop into heterophony. Mulhy was himself a chorister and his writing for choir is sympathetic. There is nothing to frighten the horses here, but also a quirky ear. Muhly is able to write intriguingly yet quite directly, so that there is a sense of familiarity but writing with new ears.

John Tavener is a composer with which the choir is very much associated, they gave the premiere of the Veil of the Temple in 2003 and this little gem, Mother of God, here I stand, comes from that work and is given a suitably quiet yet intense performance.

RVW's Valiant for Truth was written in 1940, it is a testament to the composer's long-term fascination with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and this stand-alone motet has no links to the composer's longer works on the subject such as the opera A Pilgrim's Progress. It here receives a finely idiomatic performance with the singers clearly relishing the good tune that RVW gives them.

Edward Bairstow was born two years after RVW and in 1913 took up the post of organist at York Minster where he remained for the rest of his life. His anthem Blessed City, heavenly Salem was premiered in 1914. It is a finely wrought piece, which does not quite avoid the hints of the hymn which its text implies.

Haydn's Te Deum in C, his second, dates from 1800 and was probably premiered during Lord Nelson's visit to Haydn's employer Prince Nicholas Esterhazy at Eistenstadt. The work uses just choir with no soloists, and on this disc the work explodes with brilliant energy. A crisp organ part starts at some considerable lick, and the choir takes up the challenge giving us a dazzling sequence of words getting through the music at a wonderful rate of knots. It never feels rushed, always musical and so imbued with energy that you can't help but be carried away. Never has a Te Deum been so toe-tapping.

Under their new director Roger Sayer the choir is obviously on strong form. For this disc, the numbers are clearly stronger than on an ordinary service day, with 17 trebles, 9 altos, 9 tenors and 8 basses and they make a goodly noise. The disc is worth acquiring for Nico Muhly's new work, but the surrounding pieces do not disappoint, particularly Walton's The Twelve which is not exactly common on disc.

Hubert Parry (1848-1918) - I was glad [4.57]
William Walton (1902-1983) - The Twelve [11.49]
Nico Muhly (born 1981) - Our present charter [17.30]
John Tavener (1944-2013) - Mother of God, here I sand [2.30]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Valiant-for-Truth [5.02]
Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) - Blessed City, heavenly Salem [8.33]
Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) - Te Deum in C major, HOB XXIIc.2 [8.17]
The Temple Church Choir
Greg Morris (organ)
Roger Sayer (director)
Recorded in the Temple Church, London on 13, 15 June, 4,6,18,20 July 2014
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