Thursday 6 October 2016

A voice from Heaven: The Kings Consort in 20th century British choral music

A voice from Heaven - Kings Consort - Vivat
A Voice from Heaven - Howells, Harris, MacMillan, Tavener, Stanford, Leighton, Parry, Berkeley, Murrill, Jones; Choir of the King's Consort, Robert King; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 04 2016
Star rating: 5.0

An attractive and intriguing programme, very finely sung

At first sight this new disc from Robert King and the Choir of the King's Consort, on Vivat, has all the hall-marks of a 'greatest hits' disc for late 19th and 20th century British choral music; Harris's Faire is the Heaven, Herbert Howells' Take him, earth, for cherishing and something from Howells' Requiem, Tavener's Song for Athene. All works which have a strong 'tingle-factor' for both singers and audience, all that is lacking is Stanford's Beati quorum via but the disc does include Stanford's Justorum animae from the same set. But look closer at the disc's contents and the results are rather more intriguing.

Robert King has programmed a series of pairings so that Harris's Bring us, O Lord God is paired with James MacMillan's setting of the same words. This goes through the whole disc, Both Howells and Tavener's take on Take him, earth, for cherishing, Stanford and Howells' I heard a voice from heaven, Kenneth Leighton and Thomas Hewitt Jones' Drop, drop, slow tears, Stanford and Berkeley's Justorum animae plus Herbert Murrill's setting of the English version of the text. There are a few singletons, Harris's Faire is the Heaven, Parry's Lord, let me know mine end and Tavener's Song for Athene; works which it would be difficult to imagine a composer approaching the words independently, but then again I would have said that about Herbert Howell's Take him, earth, for cherishing yet John Tavener came up with a very striking alternative setting.

The disc opens with William Harris's Bring us, O Lord God, written over 30 years after his most famous anthem, Faire is the Heaven, but inhabiting very much the same world. The choir is very much a choir, not a vocal ensemble, and numbers 28 singers (seasoned professionals, the keen eyed will spot names which occur in other major ensembles). King takes an interesting view of balance and numbers using a line up of 8,6,6,8 (compared to, say, The Sixteen's regular 6,4,4,4) and places his basses at the front with sopranos behind. This has the effect of making the sound rather less soprano led, and very much built from the bottom up. I noticed repeatedly that despite the superb blend and the voices, details of the middle lines come up well.

Bring us, O Lord God is sung with lovely combination of blend and balance, with a fine sense of legato line from the singers and sense of poise in the shaping of the music. That said, the loud passages are very loud and dynamic, all the music on this disc has this sense of dynamism. Whatever the interest of the programme, this is a very finely sung disc. James MacMillan's setting, of the same John Donne words as Harris, takes a more intimate view at first. Though the writing seems inspired by Renaissance polyphony, MacMillan introduces a real edge to the harmony. The performance is beautifully controlled, and rises to really powerful climaxes.

Harris's Faire is the Heaven is given a beautifully modulated performance, with a fine placement of Harris's complex, chromatic harmony. As any singer knows, the anthem might create a lovely rich effect, but it is not uncomplicated to sing and here the choir make the whole sound effortlessly natural.

Howell's Take him, earth, for cherishing is sung with fine power and intensity, whilst Tavener's setting of the same words (using only the first verse of Helen Waddell's poem) has a remarkably different feel and texture, rich yet clear and very striking. In Robert King's booklet notes he refers to the poem of Prudentius (who wrote the original Latin) but fails to credit Helen Waddell's striking English version for its remarkable power.

Charles Villiers Stanford's I heard a voice from heaven combines a poised solo soprano with a beautifully crafted setting of the text from Revelation, and it is quite remarkable that Herbert Howells setting of the same passage, coming from his Requiem, has a quite similar texture to the Stanford, though the cast of Howells voice and harmony is still very idiomatic.

It was lovely to have something by Kenneth Leighton on the disc, his finely crafted music still does not seem to have exposure it deserves, and it was fascinating to learn that James MacMillan was one of his students at Edinburgh University. Drop, drop slow tears is slow and rather considered with a lovely hint of angularity to the melody and harmony, and here the choir show fine control to create something akin to magic Thomas Hewitt Jones' response to the same text comes later on the disc, and is a very melodic piece with a clear doffing of the cap to previous masters.

Hubert Parry's Lord, let me know mine end, from his Songs of Farewell, is a remarkable piece of writing and a highly personal response to World War I. Here the finely fluid performance moves from beautifully shaped paragraphs to the violent anger and emotional complexity of 'take thy plague away from me'.

Stanford's Justorum animae is rather less emotionally complex, but receives a lovely fluid performance with a finely floated top soprano line in the final section. Lennox Berkeley's setting of the same words is quiet and intense, with a complexity to the harmony and an austere edge. Herbert Murrill's setting of the English version The souls of the righteous owes rather a debt to both Howells and Harris, but is fine nonetheless.

The disc ends with a remarkably slow and considered account of Tavener's Song for Athene, which combines the intimate and thoughtful with some remarkable climaxes.

On the one hand this is a lovely choral disc indeed, with some of the finest choral singing around. Certainly the recording benefits from being able to use such a large group of singers and they contribute greatly to the combination of power and flexibility in the choral sound. The recording was supported by David Wilson-Johnson in memory of his parents, and makes a fine memorial. But it as also intelligently and fascinatingly planned, so that as well as exploring a certain style of British 20th century choral music, it also shows how different composers respond to the same or similar texts. Highly recommended.

William Harris (1883-1973) - Bring us, O Lord God [4.28]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Bring us, O Lord God [5.04]
William Harris - Faire is the Heaven [5.16]
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - Take him, earth, for cherishing [8.30]
John Tavener (1944-2013) - Take him, earth, for cherishing [4.06]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) - I heard a voice from haven [4.36]
Herbert Howells - I heard a voice from haven [4.43]
Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) - Drop, drop, slow tears [3.07]
Charles Hubert H Parry (1848-1918) - Lord, let me know mine end [9.46]
Charles Villiers Stanford - Justorum animae [3.08]
Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) - Justorum animae [3.36]
Herbert Murrill (1909-1952) - The souls of the righteous [2.11]
Thomas Hewitt Jones (born 1984) - Drop, drop, slow tears [3.21]
John Tavener - Song for Athene [6.26]
Choir of the King's Consort
Robert King (conductor)
Recorded at St Jude's Church, London, NW11, 25-27 April 2016
VIVAT 113 1CD [68.28]
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