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Kenneth Leighton’s music is at the heart of English Cathedral repertoire, and demonstrates the composer’s happy absorption in this milieu from an early age. This disc from Wells Cathedral includes some first recordings of his major works in impeccable, lasting performances.
The majestic Sequence for All Saints is a marvellously consolatory work which is cast in a continuous span of five sections. The use of a congregational hymn at the end makes the music a seamless and integral part of worship. The recording of The World’s Desire is the work’s first. This extensive work arose from a commission in which Leighton was requested to write a work that reflected facets of both the Western and Eastern liturgy relating to the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Epiphany story, the Western liturgy places a stronger emphasis on Christ’s divinity as manifested at his baptism in the river Jordan. By comparison the Orthodox liturgy focuses on St John’s image of the Epiphany being ‘the day of light’ with Christ portrayed as ‘the light of men’. This dichotomy presented a particular challenge to Leighton and the result is a stirring, triumphant work which combines the traditions of the Anglican and Russian Orthodox liturgies to great effect.
Wells Cathedral has maintained a choral tradition virtually unbroken for over 800 years. Hyperion’s engineers have here captured the glorious singing of the choir in the matchless acoustic of the cathedral.
Thus Kenneth Leighton recalled his early years as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. With the perspective of time his own name can be added to the list of English composers of church music, and indeed through his substantial contribution, both in quantity and quality, he is a worthy successor to his hero Howells.
At Queen’s College, Oxford, Leighton studied classics from 1947 to 1950, and then composition with Bernard Rose during 1950–51. Winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship enabled him to study in Italy with Goffredo Petrassi, and in the early fifties he received encouragement from Gerald Finzi who programmed the young composer’s Veris gratia for oboe, cello and strings (1950) with his Newbury String Players. From 1953 onwards, alongside composing, Leighton held academic positions at the universities of Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford, where he was a Fellow of Worcester College. In 1970 he returned to Edinburgh as Reid Professor of Music, a post he held until his untimely death aged fifty-eight.
As a composer Leighton made distinctive contributions to all genres. His orchestral music includes three symphonies (1964, 1974, 1984), the second and third of which use voices, as well as concertos for violin (1952), cello (1956), organ (1970) and three for piano (1951, 1960, 1969). Choral works include the large-scale The Light Invisible (1958) for chorus and orchestra, whilst on a smaller scale Crucifixus pro nobis (1961) is widely admired, as are his carols such as Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child (1948). He wrote one opera, Columba (1978), and there is a substantial body of chamber and instrumental music, including many fine works for piano reflecting his own skills as a pianist, such as the Piano Sonata (1972). Characteristics of his music are its lyricism, rhythmic energy, contrapuntal writing, and a penchant for instrumental colour.
The legacy of Leighton’s experience at Wakefield Cathedral was seminal, and accounts for the reason why he was drawn to compose for the church throughout his career. As he wrote: ‘Any natural composer is a product of his background, experience and training … With my upbringing and my boyhood as a cathedral chorister this is perhaps why I respond emotionally to Christian subjects and texts … church music is undoubtedly a channel of communication for me … early experiences are of immense and fundamental importance in musical as in all other kinds of development and I therefore speak as one who comes from inside the church.‘
Despite this he was not a conventional believer: ‘I like to think that I’m religious, though I don’t go to church much. I read lots of philosophy of religion. I find in religious/mystical/visionary ideas the most exciting stimulus for composition. My music has become increasingly concerned with religious or visionary subjects. I find that some sort of spiritual attitude is behind most of my work. It’s the most fruitful ground for me.’
A thread running through this recording is Leighton’s fascination with hymns; as his widow wrote to the present writer: ‘He did like playing around with Hymn tunes!’ Throughout his life he quarried hymns, chorales and plainsong chants as musical material for pieces. Congregational hymns are included within both Sequence for All Saints and The World’s Desire, and Rockingham is an organ meditation on the eponymous hymn tune.
Leighton always enjoyed writing for a specific performance or particular musicians; consequently, composing Sequence for All Saints, a commission from the West Riding Cathedral Festival, must have given him particular pleasure. Not only was the Wakefield Cathedral Choir participating in the premiere (together with the choirs of Sheffield and Bradford cathedrals), but also All Souls is the dedication of Wakefield Cathedral. In addition Leighton’s old cathedral was the setting for the first performance, on 14 October 1978 conducted by Jonathan Bielby.
The text, taken from The English Hymnal, is a medieval plainsong Sequence (an addition to the liturgy that was sung during Mass after the Alleluia, usually on feast days) for the Feast of All Saints (1 November). Whilst composing the work Leighton confided to his wife that he did not find it easy composing a text that related to death; nevertheless the result is a marvellously consolatory work which is cast in a continuous span of five sections.
The Introit begins with the choir softly intoning the word ‘Gaudeamus’, which blossoms lyrically before bursting into a choral fanfare. A flamboyant, quasi-improvisatory organ solo provides a link to a fast rhythmic section that rises to a climax at ‘in honour of All Saints’. It fades with hushed awe at the ‘Son of God’, before the opening ‘Gaudeamus’ returns.
The baritone’s sombre exhortation to ‘fear the Lord’ opens the Gradual, soon joined by lilting soprano ‘Alleluias’. As the other voices are gradually added to the texture the music gathers momentum until they chime ‘Alleluia’ together, and a brief organ postlude leads to the Offertory. Here, to quietly throbbing chords, the trebles’ serene melody expresses the wonder of God, and concludes with a caressing cadence, as the voices enter by imitation and a solo treble voice floats tranquilly above.
With the Communion a profound sense of mystery is reached. An ornate organ solo sets the mood of solemnity with the baritone joining in to meditate on the peace the ‘souls of the righteous’ will obtain after death. The choir voices steal in, and in an unaccompanied passage with intense harmony the music rises to a fervent climax, only to die away for a cadence of balm.
Initially the Finale hearkens back to the opening of the sequence, before erupting into a paean of praise, as the music adopts a celebratory character heightened by the syncopated rhythmic organ accompaniment. After a climactic ‘Alleluia’, the semi-chorus starts singing Issac Watts’s hymn ‘Give me the wings of faith’, set to a melody by Orlando Gibbons clothed in the harmony of the Scottish metrical tune No 67, and with the rest of the choir adding uplifting ‘Alleluias’. Finally the moment of grandeur arrives as in conclusion the congregation sings the hymn.
Leighton composed the Chorale Prelude Rockingham in 1975 to a commission by Oxford University Press for inclusion in an organ collection Chorale Preludes on English Tunes. The hymn tune is set to the familiar words ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’, and is used in the manner of a Bachian chorale prelude creating a sense of wonder and piety.
O God, enfold me in the sun, commissioned by the church of St Philip and St James, York, was composed in 1967. Setting words by Jacqueline Froom, the music bounds along pulsing with light in response to the poet’s images. Leighton’s skill in word-setting is exemplified in the first verse when the appeal for protection from the night is heard both as a fortissimo cry from the heart, then immediately again, mezzo piano and fearfully, as if analogous to the gathering shadows, the music seeming to take on a twilight hue. In the final pages the main tune returns sung by the men, then in turn by altos and trebles leading to a sonorous culmination.
Leighton composed a set of Morning Canticles (with words from the Revised Psalter) for the centenary thanksgiving service of Monkton Combe School, held in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 8 May 1968. These were settings conceived for the occasion and the choral forces available: they may be performed in unison, for SATB voices, or, as in this recording, for unison voices and SATB chorus. The Venite is set to a vigorous march-like gait, the voices initially in unison, but quickly breaking into two-part imitative counterpoint as God is praised. At ‘today, if ye will hear his voice’ the music reaches its climax. Dissonant organ chords announce the ‘Gloria’, whose melody is a variant of the march tune.
The Te Deum laudamus begins mysteriously with the choir singing in unison, as if chanting a prayer. With a quickening of tempo an incessant rhythm on the organ underpins the unceasing praise to God. Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs and Holy Church continue the catalogue of tribute with a melody related to the introduction, to which short decorative arching phrases are added. After a climax at ‘We believe that thou shalt come: to be our Judge’, the tempo slackens as the music briefly takes on a mood of prayerful supplication. From here on, slowly and inexorably, the music swells in power until its emphatic conclusion.
With its lightness and spring the Jubilate Deo has the character of a triple-time dance, for this is music brimming with joy. Generally the unison line is supported by two of the choral parts, leaving the others to add decorative contrapuntal lines. A climax is reached at ‘we are his people’; then the music turns reflective with the anticipation of entering the gates of God’s kingdom, before building assertively to ‘For the Lord is gracious’. In the concluding Gloria, sung mezzo piano throughout, the main unison melody is suffused with a halo of decorative embellishments from the upper voices of the choir.
The World’s Desire (subtitled ‘A Sequence for Epiphany’) arose from a BBC commission in which Leighton was requested to write a work that reflected facets of both the Western and Eastern liturgy relating to the Feast of the Epiphany. It received its premiere on 9 December 1984, performed by the BBC Northern Singers conducted by Stephen Wilkinson, at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire. It is a further instance of Leighton’s belief that for him ‘the subject matter of the Christian tradition has always continued to be a powerful and natural stimulus to composition, particularly from the instinctive and emotional point of view’.
In the Epiphany story, the Western liturgy places a stronger emphasis on Christ’s divinity as manifested at his baptism in the river Jordan. By comparison the Greek liturgy focuses on St John’s image of the Epiphany being ‘the day of light’ with Christ portrayed as ‘the light of men’. Since there was very little existing music that referred to the waters of Jordan or the significance of the splendour of the light of Christ, Leighton’s challenge was to address this in his composition. David Craig chose the texts which are taken from St Matthew’s Gospel (King James version), Bishop Reginald Heber, Richard Crashaw, G K Chesterton and the Russian Orthodox Service.
The sequence is cast in two parts, which are divided into linked sections. Part I (comprising two sections) begins with a majestic organ introduction, embedded in which is the opening phrase of the hymn tune ‘Was lebet, was schwebet’, from the Rheinhardt MS, Uttingen 1754, (Hymn 42 of The English Hymnal). The hymn permeates the work, set here to Bishop Heber’s words ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’. In the manner of a dramatic scena bass and tenor solos, interspersed with choir, describe the events of the Epiphany as recounted by St Matthew. The opening phrase of the hymn tune establishes a texture of choral quietude, over which the tenor, with mounting fervour, describes the Wise Men’s discovery of the infant Jesus. Three trebles sing the first verse of the hymn as a link to the second section, an ardent unaccompanied carol setting Crashaw’s ‘Bright babe, whose awful beauties make/The morn incur a sweet mistake’. Basses take up the second verse of the hymn tune, joined by sopranos in canon, until choir and congregation join to sing the first three verses as the conclusion to Part I.
Part II is in three sections, beginning with another a cappella carol, G K Chesterton’s ‘The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap’. Although gentle in character there is intensity too, and in the final verse music of tender beauty as the solo treble voice soars above the choir with a melismatic melody. Powerful organ chords symbolizing the voice of God usher in the second section as the solo bass, declaiming words from St Matthew’s Gospel, sets the scene for Christ’s baptism. This is described by the tenor in an impassioned solo and the section concludes with God’s voice from heaven ethereally evoked by the choir, now divided into seven parts. To a joyous rocking rhythm short solos begin the third section driving the music to a climax, an organ flourish and the reappearance of the hymn tune sung by all voices. To the words ‘Today we have purchased the Kingdom of Heaven’, from the Russian Orthodox Service, the choir trebles sing an affirmative melodic phrase which is taken up by the other voices, leading to another climax and the final triumphant rendition of the hymn decorated by the trebles’ and altos’ exultant descant.
Andrew Burn © 2008