Friday 26 October 2012

CD review - A Song of Farewell - Music of Mourning & Consolation

A Song of Farewell - Music of Mourning & Consolation is one of Paul McCreesh’s series of discs with the Gabrieli Consort exploring unaccompanied choral music of the 16th to 21st centuries. This disc is the first of such programmes to appear on McCreesh’s Winged Lion label. Previous programmes have been themed on spiritual pilgrimage and the Virgin Mary; this disc focuses on music for mourning and for consolation.

The centre-piece of the programme is Howells' Requiem, which was written just before his son Michael died (the manuscript includes marks made by Michael). Howells reworked some of the material as Hymnus Paradisi but put both works away unperformed. Hymnus Paradisi was allowed out in the 1950’s but the Requiem was not allowed to be performed for another 20 years. It is a powerful and intimate work, setting a distinctive mixture of sacred texts.

McCreesh sensitively follows it just with Lord, let me know mine end from Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, written at the end of Parry’s life. Elgar’s They are at rest, prefixes the Howells. Elgar’s elegy, setting words by Cardinal Newman, was written for the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death and first sung in 1910.

The programme opens with a series of fascinating pairings, works ancient and modern. First, Percy Dearmer’s arrangement of Orlando Gibbons Drop Slow Tears, followed by William Walton’s A Litany: Drop Slow Tears, which uses the same 17th century text. Amazingly, Walton was only 15 when he wrote the piece.

Then Robert White’s compline hymn Qui Lux es et Dies, which alternates polyphony and plainchant, is paired with James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer, written in response to the Dunblane Massacre. John Sheppard’s respond, In Manus Tuas (1), similarly mixes chant and polyphony. It is paired with Jonathan Dove’s Into thy Hands setting two prayers by St Edmund of Abingdon. (He was treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral and Dove wrote the settings for the choir of Salisbury Cathedral to sing for the commemoration of the 750th anniversary of St Edmund's canonisation).

Thomas Morley’s Funeral Sentences, with their beautiful texts taken from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, form a point of quiet simplicity before the final section with the Elgar, Howells and Parry.

McCreesh uses a choir of 22 with a mixture of men and women on the alto line. They make a beautiful clear sound, with a profound elegance of line. McCreesh gets a performance of greatly concentrated intensity from his singers, rendering what could have been a disparate programme into something strongly unified and satisfying.

Listeners might be surprised that in the 19th and 20th century pieces the group do not make a big Romantic sound; instead the choir concentrates superbly on clarity and line. This is one of the finest sung discs that I have heard in a long time. The results are impressive, with perfectly placed lines and finely accurate harmonies - particularly telling in some of the 20th and 21st century works. Textures are crystalline in the MacMillan; Dove’s piece is notable for the beautiful placement of some tingling dissonances.

The White and the Sheppard are both contemplative, calmly and well pace, and these spiritual qualities carry over into the Dove and the MacMillan. The White in particular I found unhurried and very evocative.

The Morley Funeral Sentences form a simply beautiful, still centre with the singers giving great attention to the words and their cadences, enhanced by having altos sing the top line.

The textures of Howells’ Requiem are finely realised, with superb line and balance, clarity is also balanced by tonal beauty. This is a hauntingly lovely performance, with luminous transparency of texture in the 3rd movement, for instance. But McCreesh and his singers do not let sheer beauty carry them away, there is also an austerity here, all the more moving for its intimacy.

I have sometimes found performances of the Requiem can sound a little rushed, even perfunctory, but McCreesh’s pacing is perfect, allowing the music to build, shaped by the singers, and blossom in the well captured acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. This is an exquisite and almost flawless performance, but one which moves with intensity and concentrated contemplation.

Parry’s double choir motet makes a worthy coda, the relatively small forces ensuring that a degree of austerity continued over from the Howells.

Not everyone will want to have Howells’ Requiem embedded in a mixed programme like this. It is a very considered programme and McCreesh’s thought processes are illuminated by an article in the CD booklet. There are also texts and photographs of the choir.

A profoundly satisfying recording which deserves to be on every library shelf.

A Song of Farewell - Music of Mourning & Consolation
Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625) arr. Percy Dearmer (1867 - 1936) - Drop, Drop, Slow Tears
William Walton (1902 - 1983) - A Litany: Drop, Drop, Slow Tears
Robert White (c1538 - 1574) - Christe, qui lux es est dies (1)
James MacMillan (born 1959) - A Child’s Prayer
John Sheppard (c.1515 - 1550) - In Manus Tuas (1)
Jonathan Dove (born 1959) - Into Thy Hands
Thomas Morley (1557/8 - 1602) - Funeral Sentences
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - They are at rest
Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983) - Requiem
C. Hubert H. Parry (1848 - 1918) - Lord, Let me know mine end (from Songs of Farewell)

Recorded  8-10 November 2009, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

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