Tuesday 26 April 2016

On Eagles Wings - the choral music of Alexander L'Estrange

Alexander L'Estrange - On Eagles Wings - Signum
Alexander L'Estrange New College Service and other works; Tenebrae, James Sherlock, Nigel Short; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2016
Star rating: 3.5

The magical choral music of Alexander L'Estrange showcased

This new disc from Nigel Short and Tenebrae, On Eagles' Wings, showcases the music of Alexander L'Estrange, a composer whose work crosses the boundaries between classical and jazz. Coming from a choral background (he spent five years as a chorister at New College, Oxford) L'Estrange manages to combine a finely crafted English late-Romantic style with some luscious harmonies which reflect his jazz interests, though none of the music on this disc gets close to out and out jazz. The centrepiece of the disc is the New College Service written in 2014 for Edward Higginbottom and the choir of New College, Oxford. There are a couple of other larger scale works, the anthems My Song is Love Unknown and Tune Me, O Lord alongside a number of smaller items.

The disc opens with the New College Service, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for choir and organ which, like most 20th century music of this style, makes a great deal of use of unison or near unison in the choir with a rich organ accompaniment (here played by James Sherlock). Harmonies are rich and lush reminding us of Howells on stereoids, with a vibrant sound from the choir. The two works make a striking pairing and must work well in the context of Evening Service.
Next comes Lighten our darkeness setting the lovely prayer used in Evensong, and here given a simple homophonic yet magical treatment. Let All the World in Every Corner Sing sets George Herbert's well known poem (also set by RVW). It is a big bold piece, with organ accompaniment, which creates an imaginative bravura setting of the familiar words. The Lord's Prayer is another delightful small scale piece.

Tune Me, O Lord combines a delicate organ part with quiet jazz harmonies in the voices to create some lovely texture. The title track, On Eagles Wings, features a solo from L'Estrange's wife Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, in an attractive piece, quite popular sounding piece, with strong hints of jazz in the harmonies and a lovely clear bright soprano sound.  Oculi Ominium is another well made, attractive and tuneful occasional piece.

My Song is Love Unknown uses fragments of John Ireland's hymn, in a setting which combines a lyrical impulse with some nice juicy harmonies. God be in my head is a short, beautifully shaped and calm piece for upper voices and organ. Panis Angelicus again has a calmness to it, combined with some luscious harmonies. Lute-book Lullaby was L'Estrange's first commission from Nigel Short and Tenebrae in 2001, it is a hauntingly beautiful piece which uses an octatonic scale to create a magical sense of bitonality.

Epiphany Carol has a really hummable melody combined with some lush harmonies, whilst Hodie! combines some lively textures with catchy rhythms for both choir and organ. Let the People Praise You starts with a haunting chant-like melody and then develops into something haunting and rather evocative with a big finish. The last work is most definitely closer to a worship song than an anthem, accompanied by piano An Irish Blessing has a lovely melody.

On the showing of this disc, Alexander L'Estrange is the go-to person for evocative and striking small scale new commissions, something lyrically attractive with some luscious harmonies. His world is of course wider than this, but the disc only gives us glimpses. Each item is perfectly lovely with the fine performances of Tenebrae giving us plenty of magical moments. But I did wish that they had explored further, I longed for an element of contrast, perhaps some grittier items or some of L'Estrange's works which fully engage with jazz. There are a lot of short pieces on the disc, delightful but you wanted something meatier to set them off.

Alexander L'Estrange (born 1974) - New College Service [10.42]
Alexander L'Estrange - Lighten our Darkness [1.39]
Alexander L'Estrange - Let All the World in Every Corner Sing [5.53]
Alexander L'Estrange - The Lord's Prayer [1.46]
Alexander L'Estrange - Tune Me, O Lord [6.42]
Alexander L'Estrange - On Eagles' Wings [4.50]
Alexander L'Estrange - Oculi Omnium [2.51]
Alexander L'Estrange - My Song is Love Unknown [8.48]
Alexander L'Estrange - God Be in My Head [1.59]
Alexander L'Estrange - Panis Angelicus [5.20]
Alexander L'Estrange - Lute-Book Lullaby [4.39]
Alexander L'Estrange - Epiphany Carol [5.03]
Alexander L'Estrange - Hodie [3.18]
Alexander L'Estrange - Let the People Praise You [4.46]
Alexander L'Estrange - An Irish Blessing [3.56]
James Sherlock (organ)
Nigel Short (conductor)
Recorded St Jude's Church, Hampstead, 15-17 April 2017
SIGNUM  1CD [72.03]
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

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