Tuesday 9 February 2021

A Celtic Prayer: an imaginative survey of late 20th century and contemporary Scottish sacred choral music from George McPhee and the choir of Paisley Abbey

A Celtic Prayer - George McPhee, Martin Dalby, James MacMillan, Thomas Wilson, Stuart MacRae, Cedric Thorpe Davie, Edward McGuire, Owen Swindale; Choir of Paisley Abbey, George McPhee; Priory
A Celtic Prayer
- George McPhee, Martin Dalby, James MacMillan, Thomas Wilson, Stuart MacRae, Cedric Thorpe Davie, Edward McGuire, Owen Swindale; Choir of Paisley Abbey, George McPhee; Priory

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative survey of 20th century and contemporary sacred choral music from Scottish composers

This disc from George McPhee and the choir of Paisley Abbey celebrates contemporary Scottish church music with a programme of choral and organ pieces by Scottish composers, many with links to the abbey, interleaved with works from the Scottish pre-Reformation period. For A Celtic Prayer on Priory Records, George McPhee conducts the choir of Paisley Abbey with organist David Gerrard and bass flute player Ewan Robertson in music by George McPhee, Martin Dalby, James MacMillan, Thomas Wilson, Stuart MacRae, Cedric Thorpe Davie, Edward McGuire, and Owen Swindale.

It is difficult not to apply the word indefatigable to George McPhee; born in 1937, he celebrated his 50th anniversary as director of music at Paisley in 2013. The disc features McPhee in three roles, as composer, as conductor and as organist, playing three of his own works on the abbey's organ (originally built in 1872 by Aristide Cavaillé -Coll).

The disc opens with McPhee's Benedictus es Domine, a vigorously attractive piece for choir and organ, which has a practical, hymn-like aspect to it. McPhee's A Celtic Prayer sets a modern translation of a Gaelic prayer, for choir and organ with a nicely sinuous melody and imaginative mix of choir and organ. McPhee is the soloist for three of his organ works, Prelude on 'Bunessan', using a hymn-tune based on a Scottish folk melody (best known as Morning has Broken), is lilting and gently melodic with a similar mood in Prelude on 'Quem Pastores' whilst the Trumpet March forms a suitably uplifting closing piece, the sort you can imagine being played at the end of a fine service.

Martin Dalby's carol, Mater salutaris is an imaginatively inimate piece for choir and organ setting a modern translation of a macaronic medieval poem. Dalby, a pupil of Herbert Howells, was head of music for BBC Scotland and Mater salutaris was written in 1981 for the choir of the High School of Glasgow.

James MacMillan's Chosen was written in 2003 for George McPhee's 40th anniversary as music director at the abbey. The booklet note tells us that MacMillan's Sanctus was performed at the abbey when MacMillan was a pupil at Cumnock Academy! Chosen sets a poem from Her Maker's Maker by Michael Symonds Roberts (born 1963). The work opens with a unison choral line which could not but be by anyone but MacMillan. Symonds Roberts' poem is a questioning meditation for the Virgin Mary, ending with the line 'Why was my chosen one chosen?', which MacMillan sets in a highly affecting manner. This is quite a substantial piece, textures moving from the intimacy of a single vocal line and drones on the organ to rich, piercing full choral.

Thomas Wilson has been in the record catalogues for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's (RSNO) recordings of his symphonies [see my first review and my second review], of which the fourth, Passeleth Tapestry, was premiered by the RSNO at the abbey. Beautifully wrought and nicely intimate, There is no Rose for four-part unaccompanied choir, was written in 1974, its traditional style perhaps belies its date.

Stuart MacRae took park in Scottish Opera's Five:15 - Operas Made in Scotland in 2009, and subsequent works for Scottish Opera have included The Devil Inside with a libretto by Louise Welsh which was premiered in 2016 in a Scottish Opera/Welsh National Opera co-production. [see my review]. MacRae's Adam lay ybounden was written in 2003 for a Royal School of Church Music festival at the abbey. Unaccompanied and full of intense, close harmonies, the work uses organ but not so much to support the choir as to comment.

For many years master of music at St Andrew's University, Cedric Thorpe Davie studied with RVW and with Kodaly, and is best known today for his film scores. His setting of a text by George Wither (1580-1667), The Lord is He whose strength doth make me strong for choir and organ has a vigorous hymn-like quality to it, whilst Come, Holy Ghost, the Maker is more intimate, with some beautiful moments, yet still with a nod to hymnody.

I first came across the music of Edward McGuire on the Red Note Ensemble's 2015 disc Entangled Fortunes devoted to McGuire's chamber music [see my review]. On this disc we have his Three Donne Lyrics which were written in 2017 for the abbey choir and Ewan Robertson (bass flute). Robertson, flautist with the orchestra of Scottish Opera, has been a member of the abbey's congregation for many years. It is perhaps worthy of note that McGuire, besides his classical training, plays the flute with the Scottish traditional music group The Whistlebinkies.

The three Donne texts that he has chosen are not strictly religious, though each is about the poet's relationship to God. 'Hear us, O hear us' introduces us to the fascinating texture of choir and bass flute, and there is something slightly folk-like about the piece. Its gentle lilt taking some of the anxious intensity from Donne's words. Despite Donne's use of trumpets, McGuire's setting of 'At the round earth's imagined corners' is nicely intimate and thoughtful, with some close, rich harmonies and the bass flute providing an atmospheric commentary. 'Ascension' continues the mood, with a long opening solo for the flute and some evocative close harmonies for the choir. These are thoughtful pieces, capturing a rather different mood in Donne.

Owen Swindale wrote is setting of George Herbert's Trinity Sunday in 1990 for the Arran Chorus. As well as his teaching at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Scottish Conservatoire), Swindale was known for his jewellery craftsmanship on the Isle of Arran. The text's striking first line is 'Lord, who has formed me out of mud'! Swindale creates a practical and nicely wrought anthem for choir and organ from his setting.

The disc also contains a group of works by Robert Johnson, a priest who wrote music at Scone Abbey. These are four-part settings, a glimpse of the musical culture which would be swept away by the Scottish Reformation. Johnson's polyphonic motets provide a lovely foil for the more contemporary works.

This is a finely imaginative programme and rightly a celebration of McPhee's work at the abbey with his choir. The choir line-up uses a mix of girl trebles (five) and adult women (four) with the total number of choristers being 25. It is quite a challenging programme, and the choir is on admirable form here. The recording seems to capture occasional moments of uncertainty, but overall they do the music fine justice. The programme is very much an exploration of composers who are often under-represented on disc and, as such, is a valuable contribution to our exploration of contemporary and 20th century Scottish sacred choral music.

George McPhee (born 1937) - Benedictus es Domine
Martin Dalby (1942-2018) - Mater Salutaris
George McPhee - Prelude on 'Bunessan' for organ
George McPhee - A Celtic Prayer
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Chosen
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001) - There is no Rose
Stuart MacRae (born 1976) - Adam lay ybounden
Robert Johnson (c1470-after 1554) - Gaude Maria Virgo
Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-1983) - The Lord is He whose strength doth make me strong
Edward McGuire (born 1948) - Three Donne Lyrics
George McPhee - Prelude on 'Quem Pastores' for Organ
Robert Johnson - Bendedicam Domino
Owen Swindale (born 1927) - Trinity Sunday
Cedric Thorp Davie - Come, Holy Ghost, the Maker
George McPhee - Trumpet March on 'Highland Cathedral' for organ
The Choir of Paisley Abbey
David Gerrard (organ)
Ewan Robertson (bass flute)
George McPhee (director, solo organ)
Recorded in Paisley Abbey, 17 and 18 January 2020

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