Wednesday 13 April 2016

Intelligent programming and fine singing: The Evening Hour

The Evening Hour - Signum Classics - choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
John Sheppard, William Byrd, Robert Whyte, Orlando Gibbons, John Blitheman, Thomas Tallis, Philip Radcliffe, Edward Bairstow, Richard Rodney Bennett, Gabriel Jackson, Lennox Berkeley, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Gustav Holst, John Tavener, William Harris, Philip Moore, Edward Bairstow; Choir of Jesus College Cambridge, Mark Williams; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 06 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Attractive selection of evening themed works

This new disc from Mark Williams and the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge on Signum Classics is an attractively selection of 16th and 20th century British choral music with a loosely evening theme, under the title The Evening Hour. The 16th century composers included are John Sheppard, William Byrd, Robert Whyte, Orlando Gibbons, John Blitheman and Thomas Tallis, whilst the 20th century composers are Philip Radcliffe, Edward Bairstow, Richard Rodney Bennett, Gabriel Jackson, Lennox Berkeley, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Gustav Holst, John Tavener, William Harris, Philip Moore and Edward Bairstow. The selection of 20th century composers is not really one to frighten the horses, but it showcases the choir very well and within the works performed are some rather striking yet lesser known works.

In fact the disc showcases more than one choir, as Jesus College has a chapel choir and a college choir. The chapel choir is men and boys whilst the college choir is mixed with the men of the tenors and basses in common.

Choristers of Jesus College, Cambridge
Choristers of Jesus College, Cambridge
The 16th century music all has a very distinctive style to it. Perhaps because all the pieces set texts associated with evening services, Williams favours a lovely calm, beautifully controlled performances style with great smoothness and blend. This suits works like Sheppard's lovely In manus tuas and Robert Whyte's Christ qui lux es et dies admirably, whilst Byrd's Miserere mihi Domine has a fine sense of the parts moving round the long soprano line. It is the feeling of calmness which really impresses, conveying the disc's theme. Orlando Gibbons Behold thou has made my days suits the chapel choir and features a neat tenor solo from Jaliya Senanayake. John Blitheman was a name new to me, he succeeded Thomas Tallis as organist of the Chapel Royal, his In pace is simple yet effective, whilst Tallis's own Miserere nostri conceals intense constructional complexity underneath its poised surface beauty.

The disc opens with the short God be in my head by Philip Radcliffe who was a University lecturer in music at Cambridge; the harmonies are luscious and the performance poised. Edward Bairstow was organist of York Minster, and his Save us, O Lord is very much in the English romantic school with lovely harmonies and well modulated sense to it.

Richard Rodney Bennett's Song at evening is sung by the choristers. It has a substantial organ part (played by Bertie Baigent) and an interesting wandering melody, sung with admirable even tone and fine diction by the boys.

Gabriel Jackson's Creator of the stars at night was written in 2000 setting an anonymous 7th century text. It has a beautifully calm opening section with some magical textures, and more drama in the middle; a finely crafted piece given a performance which glows. Lennox Berkeley's The Lord is my Shepherd for the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Chichester Cathedral. There is a lovely clarity to the harmony and some nicely spikey bit too.

Henry Balfour Gardiner was a member, along with Percy Grainger of the Frankfurt gang, and the great uncle of the conductor John Eliot Gardiner. He was self critical and gave up composing in 1925. His Evening Hymn was written in 1908 and sets the Latin evening hymn by St Ambrose of Milan. Sung by the combined choirs, it opens with a big sound and some lush chromatic harmonies. It is a big, complex work that is English romantic in style but with twist.

Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
Gustav Holst's Evening Watch sets a dialogue by the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, a dialogue between body and soul during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Written for eight part choir with two soloists (tenor Jake Dyble and alto Elizabeth Edwards) it is highly mystical in rather an RVW vein, and rather mysterious. The choir give a terrific performance with a lovely sense of placement of Holst's complex harmonies. John Tavener's The Lord's Prayer was written in 1999 and sets the English text. It is a gentle, thoughtful piece.

William Harris' Bring us O Lord God is a terrific double-choir anthem written in 1959. Anyone listening to it will recognise the style if they know Harris's Faire is the Heaven, full of rich harmonies and complex enharmonic changes, but with hints of the mystic too.

Philip Moore was also organist at York Minster. His Evening Prayers is the last of his Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written  in 1980.  There is a sense of calm intimacy to the piece with a nice tang to the harmony. There is a nice baritone solo at the opening from Max Cockerill and a high clear soprano solo from Sapphire Armitage.

The final work on the disc is another piece by Edward Bairstow, Blessed city, heav'nly Salem, a grand, large-scale piece with a complex organ part (played by Benjamin Morris).

The whole disc adds up to a satisfying programme with its interesting mixture of calm 16th century polyphony, English Romanticism and quirkier 20th century pieces. It forms a fine showcase for the choirs, under Mark Williams fine direction. But it is far more than that, and worth investigating for the combination of intelligent programming and fine singing.

Philip Radcliffe(1905-1986) - God be in my head [1.29] (college choir)
Edward Bairstow(1874-1946) - Save us, O Lord [4.56 ] (chapel choir)
John Sheppard(c1515-1558) - In manus tuas [4.02 ] (college choir)
Richard Rodney Bennett(1936-2012) - Song at Evening [3.25] (choristers)
William Byrd(1540-1623) - Miserere mihi Domine [2.49 ] (college choir)
Gabriel Jackson(b.1962) - Creator of the stars of night [3.52 ] (college choir)
Lennox Berkeley(1903-1989) - The Lord is my Shepherd [4.43 ] (combined choirs)
Robert Whyte(c1538-1574) - Christe qui lux es et dies IV [6.03 ] (college choir)
Henry Balfour Gardiner(1877-1950) - Evening Hymn [6.24 ] (college choir)
Orlando Gibbons(1583-1625) - Behold thou hast made my days [5.30 ] (chapel choir)
Gustav Holst(1874-1934) - Evening Watch [4.39 ] (college choir)
John Tavener(1944-2013) - The Lord's Prayer [3.08 ] (chapel choir)
William Harris(1883-1973) - Bring us O Lord God [4.09 ] (college choir)
John Blitheman(c1525-1591) - In Pace [4.14 ] (chapel choir)
Philip Moore(b.1943) - Evening Prayers [6.03 ] (college choir)
Thomas Tallis(c1505-1585) - Miserere nostri [3.22 ] (college choir)
Edward Bairstow - Blessed city, heav'nly Salem [9.10] (combined choirs)
Choir of Jesus College Cambridge
Mark Williams (director)
Recorded in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, 29 June - 7 July 2015
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