Monday 18 January 2021

Sacred Ayres: Psalms, Hymns and Spirituals Songs by contemporary composer Paul Ayres from the chapel choir of Selwyn College on Regent Records

Sacred Ayres: Paul Ayres - Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs; the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Sarah MacDonald; Regent Records

Sacred Ayres
: Paul Ayres - Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs; the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Sarah MacDonald; Regent Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 January 2021
The contemporary composer Paul Ayres in sacred mode, lyrical and engaging music from hymn arrangements to anthems and spirituals

There is a balance to creating recording programmes devoted to a single, contemporary composer, particularly one that is not well represented in the recording catalogues. Composers want to include their best, their favourite, their unrecorded works, the performers need pieces which are performable in the time available, and the producer wants to keep costs down and not include anything too exotic. There is also the limitation of what the composer has actually written, a busy young composer with a number of other strings to their bow can find that their back catalogue is full of useful pieces, which do not always add up to a satisfying record programme.

For the new disc devoted to the music of Paul Ayres on Regent Records, Sarah MacDonald and the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, with organists Shanna Hart and Dāvids Heinze, have put together a programme called Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, which showcases 22 of Ayres' smaller works, many written to commission and for particular performers, many fitting into the category of useful music, pieces that performers want to perform, that fit into existing performing traditions, but this is not to say that the music is without challenge.

First off, I have to admit a personal connection, I sang in one of Paul's choirs in the 1990s and he conducted my ensemble FifteenB for a number of years, giving the premieres of quite a few of my choral works at the Chelsea Festival and other places.

To solve the problem of too many smaller works, the programme is divided into sections, Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, Anthems, Carols. Some works are completely original, whilst others are arrangements and Paul's writing in these is never less than imaginative. As a conductor he has worked with a number of youth choirs and many of these pieces are beautifully written for voices, clearly making them singable yet something of a challenge, so ultimately satisfying for performers and audience.

Listening to these you can hear a variety of influences, some of the psalm settings seem to channel Arvo Part, but the lyrical voice and imaginative part writing in many of the pieces very much evokes John Rutter, a fine model for a practical composer. Yet a definite voice does arise, and I was particularly struck by his fondness for canon and for fitting melodies together.

At the centre of the disc is a group of spiritual songs, spirituals arranged by Paul, Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, Go down Moses, Motherless Child, Deep River, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho. The more lively ones allow Paul to bring out his love of jazz and other more popular elements, whilst the slower ones are never less than imaginative. I confess to having a problem with choirs performing spirituals, though Paul gives a spirited defence on his website, and we have to admit that arrangements of spirituals play an important role in the history of British choral music from the arrangements in the early 20th century by composers such as Sir Hugh Roberton to Michael Tippett's use of them in A Child of Our Time. And in fact some of Paul's arrangements seem to venture into Tippett territory, perhaps providing viable arrangements for choirs not wanting Tippett's use of double choir plus soloist.

Sarah MacDonald and the chapel choir of Selwyn College sing with evident affection and enthusiasm, though a few untidy corners suggest that rehearsal and recording time were inevitably limited. Whilst some of the items are unaccompanied, many use the organ for support and for comment, with the role being ably shared between Shanna Hart and Dāvids Heinze

This is an admirably well-filled disc, and you get full texts as well as a substantial article by Paul Aryes giving background to the pieces. The selection of smaller works is intelligently done, but as ever with this type of programme, I missed something meatier for the listener to get their teeth into.

Hoever the voice that comes over is appealing and engaging, many of the works sound eminently performable (and most are available through Paul Ayres' website), and so should appeal to choirs of all sizes and standards.

Sacred Ayres
Paul Ayres - Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
Shanna Hart (organ)
Dāvids Heinze (organ)
Sarah MacDonald (conductor)
Recorded 4-6 July 2018 in Selwyn College Chapel

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