On record – State Choir LATVIJA / Māris Sirmais – Sempiternam: Choral music by Rhona Clarke (Métier)


Rhona Clarke
O Vis Aeternitatis (2020)
Two Marian Anthems (2007)
Three Carols on Medieval Texts (2014)
Requiem (2020)
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.



For further information on this disc and to view purchase options, visit the Divine Art Records website. To read more about Rhona Clarke, visit this dedicated composer website, and for more on the performers, click on the names of State Choir LATVIJA and Māris Sirmais.

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & CBSO / John Butt: Handel’s Messiah


Handel Messiah HWV56 (1741)

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 ( 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.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of John Butt, Mary Bevan, Reginald Mobley, James Gilchrist and Christopher Purves

Royal composers – Sir Hubert Parry: I Was Glad

by Ben Hogwood

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.

Royal composers – Sir Arthur Bliss, John Ireland & Sir Arnold Bax

by Ben Hogwood

Our brief look at the music used in the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II continues with three lesser-known composers whose music was used at either end of the ceremony in 1953.

Receiving its first performance was the Processional by the new incumbent of the position Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss. Ideally timed for the ceremony (with a procession that was in total more than six miles!) its orchestral opening builds steadily until the grand entry of the organ half way through. After its central section the piece builds to a rousing conclusion, led by organ, brass and drums:

Also heard before the service was the Epic March by John Ireland. This was effectively a piece of wartime propaganda, written in 1942 to boost the spirits of a flagging nation. When asked for the piece, Ireland wrote to Sir Adrian Boult, “What I have in mind is stern and purposeful rather than jolly and complacent”. The piece was first heard on the opening night of the 1942 season of Promenade concerts, and its stoic, noble tones were wholly suitable as part of the music before the Coronation service:

As the royal party and guests departed they heard the familiar strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, nos. 1 & 4 respectively. Sandwiched between the two pieces was a new work by Sir Arnold Bax. The Coronation March has an unmistakably regal feel, some choice moments for the trombones, and a suitably royal chorale to finish:

Royal composers – Sir William Walton

by Ben Hogwood

As all UK-based readers of Arcana will surely know, it is a long weekend of celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. On these pages I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at some of the music used in the service of her Coronation, which took place a year to the day after her accession to the throne.

We begin with three pieces from Sir William Walton which have become some of his best-loved works. The first, Crown Imperial, is almost instantly recognisable, a piece that brings great pomp and circumstance to a ceremony without ever spilling over into over-patriotic bluster – very English, in short. Crown Imperial was commissioned by the BBC for the coronation of George VI in 1937, and was also used in the ceremony for Elizabeth II in 1953

At the close of the ceremony the congregation heard a new piece, Orb and Sceptre, for which Walton was paid £50 by the Arts Council in October 1952. The composer was candid about the new piece. “The Orb and Sceptre I wrote for her is goodish – not as good as Crown Imperial, but I did my best.” He was being modest, for there are still some good tunes contained within, a hint of Elgar in the regal second theme, and colourful writing for brass and percussion.

In November 1952 the organist of Westminster Abbey, William Mackie, persuaded Walton to write a Te Deum for the forthcoming service. With the chance to use the Queen’s Trumpeters, the composer agreed, writing a piece fit for the occasion, using the space of Westminster Abbey to perfection with bold orchestral writing, a spicy organ part and celebratory choral writing. Lady Susanna Walton, the composer’s wife, recalls, “The actual coronation was extraordinary…the Queen’s Trumpeters, standing on the clerestory with long silver trumpets and banners, made a dramatic impact”.