Thursday, 14 September 2017

New music for choir and ancient instruments

Set upon the Rood, Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Delphian
James McMillan, John Kenny, Stuart MacRae, Bill Taylor, Francis Grier, Stevie Wishart, Stephen Bick; Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Geoffrey Webber
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 12 2017 Star rating: 5.0
The imaginative combination of choir, contemporary composers and reconstructed ancient instruments creates a terrific disc

This disc is the intriguing confluence of two different series of discs, Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville and Caius College's explorations of the choral repertoire including bringing to light music of the early Celtic church (see my review), and the European Music Archaeology Project's discs showcasing ancient instruments in modern performances. So here, on Delphian we have  Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville and Caius College in contemporary music for choir and ancient instruments. New pieces by James MacMillan, John Kenny, Stuart Macrae, Bill Taylor, Francis Grier, Stevie Wishart and Stephen Bick using triplepipe, aulos, Loughnashade horn, chimes, carnyx, lyre, crotales and organ, played by Barnaby Brown, John Kenny, Patrick Kenny, Bill Taylor, James Leitch and Michael How.

James MacMillan's Noli Pater was a joint commission between Gonville and Caius College and the St Albans International Organ Festival and the work was premiered at the festival in 2015. It uses choir, organ and triplepipe (played by Barnaby Brown). The work starts from a low rumble in the organ, with the men singing a chant-esque melody, which MacMillan develops into something rather dramatic, and then suddenly the triplepipe appears, this provides as much texture as melody, particularly when combined with voices or organ. MacMillan then thrillingly develops the music using his varied forces, to illuminate the text. The work's thrilling climax leads to a final solo for the triplepipe. A highly dramatic piece, it certainly makes me want to hear it live.


Next comes John Kenny's The Deer's Cry, a setting of St Patrick's Breastplate first performed at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music in 2016. The work uses two ancient Celtic instruments, the Loughnashade horn and the carnyx (played by John Kenny and Patrick Kenny). Kenny is a trombonist and composer and he and Patrick Kenny have been very imaginative in the range of sounds which they conjure from the two instruments, and Kenny sets these against a whole host of advanced choral techniques, so the work is full of note clusters, whisperings, shoutings, whistlings and much more. With Kenny's harmony using open intervals which recall more ancient music, and of course set off by the amazing sound of the horn and the carnyx. This is a tricky piece, but one which the performers all bring off thrillingly.

Stuart MacRae's Cantata sets a poem by 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan for wire-strung lyre, solo quintet (former choir members Clare Lloyd Griffiths, Catherine Harrison, Nathan Mercieca, James Robinson, Malachy Frame) and choir. The lyre is tuned to the whole tone scale, plus a low C not in the scale, thus providing tonal ambiguity. MacRae starts from a rather complex chant-like melody, which he combines with humming and the lyre, the result is an interesting combination of textures which takes advantage of the very strong contrast between the lyre and the voices. Again, MacRae brings in some rather advanced choral techniques, creating long and complex, multilayered work, and the choir rises wonderfully to the challenges.

Billl Taylor's Crux fidelis is an arrangement of the plainsong hymn for gut-strung lyre, played by Taylor himself and two solo voices, Clover Willis and Huphrey Thompson (there is no choir in this one). Taylor combines the chant with the lyre in a way which rather evoked performances of Hildegard of Bingen's music.

Francis Grier's Cantemus uses choir and triplepipe (Barnaby Brown), setting the Celtic text 'Cantemus in omni die'. Grier opens with triplepipe, and then introduces solo voices in a canonic textures, and the whole piece builds on these blocks, the alternation of pipes and voices, the interweaving of voices in canonic manner and finally the interweaving of voices and pipes. Grier develops his initial chant-like melody to create some highly complex textures and harmonies, culminating in a climax where pipes and choir come together. A terrific piece, I wondered whether there was a possibility of performance with other instruments, to make the piece more accessible to choirs.

Steve Wishart's Iste Confessor comes from Wishart's larger Vespers for St Hildegard. Iste Confessor uses solo voices and choir with optional instrumental parts, here lyre (Bill Taylor) and chamber organ (Michael How) playing largely improvised parts. The result combines a rather folk-ish chant melody with instruments in rather dance-inspired music.

The final work, Stephen Bick's Set upon the Rood sets the composer's own modern English version of the early medieval poem The Dream of the Rood, for solo baritone (the composer himself), choir and gut-strung lyre (Bill Taylor). The work opens with the solo baritone (Bick), accompanied by lyre, impersonating the dreamer/narrator who introduces the story. The solo line is not uncomplex with some interesting interval leaps, as the cross itself speaks the choir takes over.  Bick's style is tonal, and he creates a sense of vivid narration in the choir with the use of rapid alternation of Decani and Cantoris. Bick's use of the lyre in the piece takes full advantage of the instrument's otherness, and the result gives the work a sense of the underlying uneasiness of the text.

There are some terrific pieces on this disc, and it is fascinating to hear how different composers have incorporated the sounds of the ancient instruments, sometimes stretching them as far as might be possible. A number of the composers make great use of the sense of otherness of the instruments, and the use of ancient texts and chants also links to earlier worlds. Some of the pieces are a terrific challenge, and the choir rises magnificently to this challenge.

James MacMillan (born 1959) - Noli Pater
John Kenny (born 1957) - The Deer's Cry
Stuart MacRae (born 1976) - Cantata
Bill Taylor (born 1957) - Crux Fidelis
Francis Grier (born 1955) - Cantemus
Stevie Wishart (born 1959) - Iste Confessor
Stephen Bick (born 1993) - Set upon the Rood
Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Geoffrey Webber (director)
Barnaby Brown (triple pipe, aulos)
John Kenny (Loughnashade horn, chimes)
Patrick Kenny (carnyx, chimes)
Bill Taylor (lyre)
James Leitch (organ, crotales)
Michael How (organ crotales)
Recorded 29-31 August 2016 in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34154 1CD [68.20]
Available from Amazon.
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