As a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, here is a small part of the deeply meaningful music from her funeral service at Westminster Abbey this morning, which also included new works from Sir James MacMillan and the Master of the King’s Music Judith Weir.
Two English works, by Sir Hubert Parry and Vaughan Williams, are included below. My Soul There Is A Country is the first of six Songs Of Farewell by Parry, for unaccompanied choir, written towards the end of the First World War.
O taste and see is a short motet that Vaughan Williams completed in 1953 for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a short and beautiful piece:
Daniel Jones Symphony no.12 (1985)a Symphony no.13 ‘Symphony in memory of John Fussell (1992)b Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life (1987)c
Maldwyn Davies (tenor) (c), BBC Welsh Chorus (c, BBC WelshSymphony Orchestra (a) and (c) / Bryden Thomson (a), Sir Charles Groves (c); BBC National Orchestra of Wales (b) / Tecwyn Evans (b)
Lyrita SRCD391 [65’35”] English text included Dates: (a) – BBC studio recording 22 March 1990; (b) – BBC concert broadcast 23 January 2017; (c) – BBC broadcast from Swansea Festival, 10 October 1987
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Lyrita completes its coverage of symphonies by Daniel Jones (1912-1993) with this coupling of his final two such works, alongside the premiere performance of his last cantata, heard in readings by artists who identified closely with the composer’s music throughout their careers.
What’s the music like?
It was only midway through this cycle that Jones realized he could start a symphony on each note of the chromatic scale. The Twelfth Symphony thus completes this process – its overall structure being among the composer’s most concentrated. At barely six minutes, the opening movement seems relatively expansive with the tensile sonata-form of its Agitato bookended by affecting Tranquillo passages. There follows a rumbustious Giocoso the more potent for its brevity, a Serioso such as might almost be thought a ‘song without words’ with its lyrical understatement, then a Risoluto which extends just long enough to round off the whole work by effecting an oblique return to its initial bars. Four decades on from his first so-designated piece and Jones can be said to have brought his symphonic cycle decisively to its conclusion.
That, however, was by no means the end of the story: the death, in 1990, of Jones’s friend the organist and administrator John Fussell prompted a Thirteenth Symphony as proved to be his last completed work (an Eighth String Quartet being realized by Malcolm Binney and the late Giles Easterbrook). Relatively expansive next to those later such pieces, with some especially imaginative writing for percussion (allocated to no less than seven players), this unfolds from the restless and eventful Solenne – at almost 10 minutes a worthy ‘memorial’ in itself – via an animated and nonchalant Capriccioso then a Lento whose plangent woodwind writing makes it among his most searching slow movements, to a finale whose Agitato-Tranquillo trajectory is pursued twice as this intensifies inexorably towards an ending as powerful as it is eloquent.
Coming between the two symphonies, Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life is the last of Jones’s four cantatas and again has recourse to metaphysical poetry – in this instance George Herbert, the seven short movements being arranged as to chart the spiritual progress of the author (by extension, that of John Aeron-Thomas – founder-member of the Swansea Festival, for whom this is a memorial). Intersected with a fervent orchestral Fantasia, the six choruses traverse contrasted and even conflicted emotions before attaining an unforced affirmation at the close.
Does it all work?
It does. As has previously been noted in these reviews, Jones was not a composer who sought or attracted easy plaudits – opting for an idiom whose methodical evolution is consistent and absorbing. The performances reflect this thinking, Sir Charles Groves and Bryden Thomson both focussed on capturing the essence of works whose integrity is abetted by deftness and no little humour. Tecwyn Evans’s conducting suggests he, too, is primarily concerned with projecting the spirit of this music. Nor does Maldwyn Davies’s contribution leave anything to be desired.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. The broadcasts have been expertly remastered (No. 13 understandably sounding the best), with Paul Conway contributing detailed and insightful annotations. Job done by Lyrita, which will now hopefully complete a similar intégrale of the symphonies by Alun Hoddinott.
For further information and purchasing options, visit the Lyrita website For more information on Daniel Jones, click here
O Vis Aeternitatis (2020)
Two Marian Anthems (2007)
Three Carols on Medieval Texts (2014)
The Kiss (2008)
A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1991)
Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep (2006)
The Old Woman (2016)
Rorate Caeli (1994)
State Choir LATVIJA / Māris Sirmais
Métier MSV28614 [72’36”] English/Latin texts and English translations included
Producer & Engineer Varis Kutmiņš
Recorded July 2021, St John’s Church, Riga
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Métier continues its coverage of Rhona Clarke with this collection of choral works that spans three decades and comprises settings in English and Latin, underlining the stylistic extent of her music as well as its versatility over a range of texts from the Medieval to the present era.
What’s the music like?
Now in her mid-sixties and a prominent figure in the cultural life of her native Dublin, Clarke has amassed a sizable output as takes in almost all the major genres with particular emphasis on chamber, choral and electro-acoustic music. A previous Métier release of her four piano trios from the Fidelio Trio (MSV28561) confirmed her astute handling of what is among the more recalcitrant of chamber media, with such fluency being no less evident in her writing for chorus that can easily be described as inclusive in terms of its subjects and sympathies.
The Latin pieces are almost all religious texts, of which the gradual Rorate Caeli is energetic and intricate with particularly adroit usage of modes. The stylistic trajectory Clarke has taken is evident in the motet O Vis Aeternitatis, whose text by Hildegard of Bingen duly inspires a setting of great contrapuntal skill with arresting interplay of sung and spoken passages. Two Marian Anthems comprise a fluid take on Regina Caeli then a Salve Regina whose fusing of chordal and melismatic elements results in music of translucent beauty. Most extensive is the Requiem whose four sections – a sombre ‘Introit’, an ethereal ‘Lux Aeterna’, an intimate ‘Pie Jesu’ then a soulful ‘In Paradisum’ – focus on the overtly cathartic aspects. Very different is Ave Atque Vale, a setting of Catullus where pathos and indignation are forcefully intertwined.
The English pieces underline Clarke’s literary sympathies even more directly. The relatively early A Song for St Cecilia’s Day evinces an inventive approach to Dryden’s verse in which order is wrested out of (relative) chaos towards a climactic statement around ‘diapason’. Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep sets the poem generally attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye with a melting eloquence as ought to make it a staple of the modern repertoire. After which, the grim humour summoned from the anonymous text The Old Woman is the more pungent. Clarke’s questing harmonic approach helps clarify the sentiment of Ulick O’Connor’s poem The Kiss, but its directness in Three Carols on Medieval Texts yields an engaging humour in Glad and Blithe and Make We Merry to complement the rapt intimacy of Lullay My Liking.
Does it all work?
Almost always thanks to the technical finesse of Clarke’s choral writing and, as previously noted, her ability to ‘home in’ on the expressive essence of the text(s) at hand makes for an emotional empathy which communicates directly to listeners. It helps when the contribution of the State Choir LATVIJA, under Māris Sirmais, is so attuned to this music, not least given its audible command of several by no means idiomatic (to modern ears) English texts. Choral societies looking for new pieces to enrich their repertoire could do worse than to investigate what is on offer here.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. The acoustic of St John’s, Riga is ideally suited to the frequent textural density of this music and the composer provides detailed annotations. Hopefully there will be more releases from this source, not least of the electro-acoustic works that form a notable part of her output.
Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Butt (harpsichord)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 8 June 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Unlikely as it might seem, the CBSO Chorus had never given Handel’s Messiah before this evening – the regular stream of performances by choral societies or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra having other priorities putting paid to any such intention until tonight.
Not that Messiah has ever lacked for performances since its Dublin premiere in April 1742 – after which, it soon became recognized as, if not necessarily the finest of Handel’s numerous oratorios, then certainly the most representative; a template for the genre such as dominated music-making in Britain over the next 175 years. His text drawn freely from the Old and New Testaments, Charles Jennens relates Christ’s birth, death and resurrection then triumph of the Christian gospel in meaningful while not profound terms as were bound to strike a resonance.
Formerly the work falls into three parts of 16 scenes and 53 individual (not always separate) numbers, ranging from brief solo recitatives to lengthy arias and extended choruses in what became a blueprint for those oratorios as followed apace over the next decade. Although all four soloists share in relating aspects of the narrative, there is no division into specific roles as in Passion settings; itself a sure means of conveying a dramatic scenario without the need to endow musical content with an overly theatrical aspect as might have become distracting.
Tonight’s soloists evidently had no lack of familiarity with the work. For all their individual excellence, the deftness of Reginald Mobley’s lightly inflected alto, mellifluousness of James Gilchrist’s high tenor and elegance of Christopher Purves’s lyric baritone perhaps limited the emotional contrast possible between solo items. This was hardly the case with Mary Bevan (above), whose eloquent assumption of the soprano numbers, not least an I know that my Redeemer liveth as brought out the pathos of music that long ago seemed to have become its own stereotype.
Otherwise (not unreasonably) it was the choral items which really hit home. Enthused by the chance to sing this work the CBSO Chorus gave its collective all: whether in those energetic earlier choruses, fervent anticipation of Glory to God in the highest, contrapuntal vigour of Hallelujah or the majestic accumulation of Worthy is the Lamb, whose elaborate ‘Amen’ was powerfully rendered. Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins (behind the organ manual) had evidently ensured that, for the CBSOC’s rare outing in this work, nothing was left to chance.
Not that the CBSO’s contribution was found at all wanting. Avoiding a temptation to try out one of the latter-day orchestrations, the string sections were modest (10.8.6.4.2) while almost always achieving a viable balance with the chorus. Bassoon, theorbo and organ constituted a discreet continuo, Matthew Hardy’s timpani underpinned the final choruses and Gwyn Owen was superb in the concertante role of The trumpet shall sound. Directing at the harpsichord, John Butt secured playing of incisiveness and depth with no recourse to specious authenticity. Given that the CBSO Chorus celebrate its half-century next year, it might have been thought advisable to schedule this performance during 2023. No matter – tonight proved a memorable occasion and it seems highly unlikely that a repeat account will have to wait another 49 years.
Our brief survey of coronation music arrives at the quintessential choral anthem, Sir Hubert Parry‘s I Was Glad.
Completed in 1902, Parry’s work sets the text of Psalm 122. It was not the first setting of the psalm, with Henry Purcell and William Boyce – royal composers themselves – setting the texts for coronations of James II (1685) and George III (1761) respectively.
Parry’s is the version we hear most often today, used in the coronation of King Edward VII in its year of composition, then for the Coronation, silver, diamond and platinum jubilees of Queen Elizabeth II, not to mention the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, then William and Kate in 2011.
In a resplendent B flat major, the piece has it all – grand trumpet fanfares, thunderous organ lines, and thrilling choral lines that have been seized on gratefully by choral societies around Britain. Little wonder that it has been chosen for such important occasions, for in a good performance Parry’s exultant piece comfortably fills a cathedral.