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Tavener: Mother and child

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor)
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Recording details: March 2003
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Limo Hearn
Release date: June 2003
Total duration: 63 minutes 18 seconds
 

Signum Records is delighted to announce the release of Tenebrae's second album, Mother and Child. Tenebrae has, in its short existence, made a considerable impact with fresh and vital re-interpretations of classic works in the choral repertoire. On this new recording, innovatory and lesser-known repertoire is drawn from contemporary sources, reflecting an exploratory approach which places the group artistically at the cutting edge.

This is a distinctive and distinguished collection of works by a number of living composers, many of whom have established themselves at the creative forefront of the choral scene in recent times.

Five of the tracks are premiere recordings: Francis Pott's The souls of the righteous and My song is love unknown, Tavener's Mother and Child, Alexander L’Estrange's Lute-book lullaby and Jeremy Filsell's O be joyful in the Lord.

The centre-piece of the disc is a new commission—Mother and Child—by Tenebrae from the world-acclaimed composer Sir John Tavener.

The universal aspect of motherhood is an idea to which Tavener has returned again and again in his music. Behind this concept lies that of infinite theophanic light, an idea common to all religious traditions. Tavener’s music here interpolates a poem by Brian Keeble with Greek and Sanskrit quotations, the latter in a climactic outburst. The music, having grown in crescendo, is joined by massive organ chords and develops to become an overwhelming pulsating texture at the climax, with awesome strokes sounded on a large Hindu temple gong. The clamour dissipates at the final invocation, ‘Hail Maria’, which is prayerful and contemplative.

Reviews

'On the evidence of this album, Tenebrae’s fan-base deserves to extend to anyone inspired by excellent choral singing. The professional chamber choir’s second disc on Signum’s new contemporary label contains world-premiere recordings of works by Francis Pott, Alexander L’Estrange and Jeremy Filsell. Tavener’s Mother and Child has about it the appealing artlessness of his finest choral works, while Pott’s My Song is Love Unknown emerges as a miniature masterpiece' (Classic FM Magazine)

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Tenebrae has, in its short existence, made a considerable impact with fresh and vital re-interpretations of classic works in the choral repertoire. On this new recording, however, innovatory and lesser-known repertoire is drawn from contemporary sources, reflecting an exploratory approach which places the group artistically at more of a cutting edge. This is a distinctive collection of works by a number of living composers, many of whom have established themselves at the creative forefront of the choral scene in recent times.

Jonathan Dove (b1959) has become known for his work in a variety of musical media including orchestral, chamber, theatre and film music. As an instinctively dramatic composer, his operas have arguably attracted the greatest critical attention. In his ten-year association with Glyndebourne, Dove has written three large-scale community operas of which Flight, premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1998, and met by enthusiasm from audiences and critics alike, is possibly his best known. His individual voice as a writer of music for the church has led to a number of commissions including those for the Spitalfields Festival, Eton College Chapel Choir and for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 2000). His fondness for strong pulse and vivacious rhythm (which pervades his work generally) has also made him a natural and successful musical collaborator in dance. Seek him that maketh the seven stars is a setting of words from the book of Amos and from Psalm 139. The use of ostinati in the organ part, traversing sinuous vocal lines marked often by ‘pleading’ (‘Seek him’) figures evokes both the starry firmament and the ‘searching’ nature of the prophet’s invocation. The later portion (an ‘Alleluia’) is more affirmative and triumphant before an ending of confident calm. The work was commissioned in 1995 by the Royal Academy of Arts and received its premiere in June that year at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, conducted by Adrian Peacock, a member of Tenebrae, with Jeremy Filsell, Tenebrae’s accompanist, at the organ.

Francis Pott (b1957) was a chorister at New College, Oxford, and a Music Scholar at Winchester College. Following undergraduate studies, he gained a BMus at Cambridge University whilst studying composition under Hugh Wood and Robin Holloway. Since 2002 Francis Pott has served as Head of Research Development for the Faculty of the Arts at Thames Valley University in West London and Head of Composition within its Music department, otherwise known as London College of Music. In February 2007 he became the University's first Professor of Composition and his lifelong association with church music has generated a string of significant commissions for a number of cathedrals, colleges and churches. As a formidable pianist, his writing for this instrument has formed a considerable oeuvre but it is his organ works which have become established as some of the most important writing for the instrument of the later 20th century. Christus (a two and a half hour five-movement symphony for organ) is a seminal contribution to the recitalist’s canon and its profound subject matter links it indelibly with Pott’s own large-scale oratorio commission for the 1999 Three Choirs Festival, A song on the end of the world. His musical style is derived from a number of influential sources: the Renaissance polyphony of Italy, Spain and (perhaps most importantly) England, the piano writing of Medtner and Rachmaninov and, fundamentally, the formal and harmonic style of Danish symphonist Carl Nielsen.

The souls of the righteous was commissioned by David Bushnell in memory of his late wife Sheila. Both had been associated with Winchester Cathedral for some thirty years and Sheila’s ashes were scattered within the cathedral precincts. In writing the piece, Pott felt it natural to draw not only upon the memory of his own parents but also on the atmosphere of William Byrd’s setting (as Justorum animae) of these words, a motet which has held an especially profound significance for him ever since he was a chorister at New College. Pott has always tried to recreate something of the sensibility of English sixteenth-rather than nineteenth-century sacred music in his own choral writing, and in this case the feeling was particularly strong. The souls of the righteous received its first performance in Winchester Cathedral in 2000.

Giles Swayne was born in 1946 and began composing as a teenager through encouragement from his illustrious cousin, Elizabeth Maconchy. Influential musical figures for Swayne at Cambridge included Nicholas Maw and Raymond Leppard and later, at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Alan Bush and Harrison Birtwistle. The Magnificat was commissioned by Francis Grier for the choir of Christchurch, Oxford, in 1982 with funds provided by the Southern Arts Association. It is a unique setting of very familiar words and has become a classic work in the choral catalogue. The Magnificat canticle forms a central part of both Vespers and the Anglican office of Evensong and this setting for double choir in Latin delights in the daringly unconventional interpolation of zulu warrior chant interwoven between ‘Stravinskian’ ostinati-dominated polyphony. Swayne’s distanced approach to specific textual nuance shares a similarity with the great Magnificat settings of the sixteenth century (Victoria, Palestrina, Vivanco, Ortiz, etc.), but the pointillist dabs of colour, the ostinati and increasingly wide-leaping lines place this very firmly in its contemporary milieu.

Sir John Tavener’s (b1944) originality of concept and development of a very personal musical idiom have brought him wide recognition for a contemporary composer of classical music. His interest in the Russian Orthodox Church (of which he became a member in 1977) marks a compositional style which looks back to ancient traditions and communicates a reflective spirit which has successfully chimed with the spiritual thirsts of our modern age. Tavener has always worked towards the creation of what he has termed an ‘icon’ in sound, and the extraordinary popularity of his music has been reflected in the number of arts festivals which have featured his works. In October 2000 London’s South Bank Centre staged Ikons of light, a major three-week festival dedicated to his music. In the New Year’s Honours list 2000, Tavener received a knighthood for ‘services to music’.

Mother and child was commissioned by Tenebrae in 2003 and premiered at the Salisbury Festival of that year. The universal aspect of motherhood and, more specifically, that of Mary the mother of Christ (as co-redeemer) is an idea to which Tavener has returned again and again in his music. However, behind this concept lies that of infinite theophanic light, an idea common to all religious traditions. Tavener’s music here interpolates a poem by Brian Keeble with Greek and Sanskrit quotations, the latter in a climactic outburst (of ‘ATMA’, representative in Tavener’s words of ‘the supreme reality, the true self, shining and infinite, the one single God’). The music, having grown in crescendo, is joined by massive organ chords and develops to become an overwhelming pulsating texture at the climax, with awesome strokes sounded on a large Hindu temple gong. The clamour dissipates at the final invocation, ‘Hail Maria’, which is prayerful and contemplative.

Alexander L’Estrange (b1974) is a singer, composer, arranger and jazz bassist who moves happily between differing styles of musical media. He was a chorister at New College, Oxford, and sang in the choir at Magdalen College whilst an undergraduate at Merton College. His arrangements for a number of groups have been published by Faber and his award-winning one-woman musical Hello, Life! received performances at the Greenwich Theatre in 2002 and at the Brighton Festival in May 2003. L’Estrange is Music Director of the National Youth Music Theatre and a member of Tenebrae. Lute-book lullaby is one of a number of pieces he has written for the group. Its essential simplicity is compelling, but also conceals the use of the octotonic scale in homophonic passages. The lower voice part undulations portray the rocking of the Christ-child’s cradle beneath a soprano solo of haunting beauty. The bittersweet dissonance heightens an atmosphere of overwhelming tenderness.

Jeremy Filsell (b1964) is a renowned concert pianist and organist, having won accolades and critical acclaim for a number of recordings (most recently for the premiere recordings of the complete organ works of Marcel Dupré). He studied at Keble College, Oxford, as an organ scholar and then at the Royal College of Music as a pianist and singer. He currently combines an international career as a soloist with a lectureship at the Royal Academy of Music. A set of both Morning and Evening Canticles was written for Jonathan Rees-Williams and the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in the summer of 2001 and the Evening Canticles were first broadcast by the choir on BBC Radio 3 in May 2002. O be joyful in the Lord (Jubilate; Psalm 100) pays affectionate homage to a number of influential works, most notably Sebastian Forbes’ brilliant and unjustly neglected Aedis Christi Canticles from which he quotes in the concluding bars. Passing references to music by both Graham Whettam and William Walton in certain rhythmic and melodic shapes can also be discerned.

The prolific musical ‘chameleon’ Richard Rodney Bennett (b1936) followed his initial musical studies at the Royal Academy of Music with two years in Paris under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez. Bennett’s first jazz film score dates from this period and it is this particular aspect of his musical make-up which has fused with an impressive formal craft to produce symphonies, concertos, operas, instrumental and choral pieces which exhibit a uniquely refreshing musical style. Preferring tonality as a working principle, Bennett has developed an individual harmonic palette which combines an approachability with compositional artifice. Sermons and devotions was commissioned by The King’s Singers in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Of the five settings of John Donne’s metaphysical meditations, we hear The seasons of his mercies. It is a syllabic setting in a broad ternary form, articulated by a central portion for tenor solo. The bittersweet harmony within slow-moving lines compellingly conjures the poetic intimacy of the text.

Francis Pott’s My song is love unknown sets all of Samuel Crossman’s famous verses but one (commonly omitted when the poem is sung metrically as a hymn). The music begins with offbeat repeated chords prompted—not inappropriately—by the opening to Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Death and transfiguration. In its early stages only trebles and altos are heard. The sequential flow of Crossman’s poem is soon disrupted with particular dramatic ends in mind. After a seemingly anxious harmonic distortion of the opening chords, the word ‘crucify’ arises initially as a mere mutter from the lower voices, so timed as to afford assonance with other words in the upper parts and thus remain barely discernible, as if only imagined. In due course, however, cries of ‘Hosanna’ find themselves on a collision course with a rising tide of ‘Crucify’, during which the ‘Hosanna’ faction gradually loses heart and, sheep-like, defects until a single treble voice—plaintively daring to repeat the ‘offending’ word—is swept aside by a murderous outcry. In due course ‘Crucify’ recurs as a further angry climax before the opening music returns, this time expanding into an extended polyphonic final section for double choir and SATB soloists. The principal climax of the work subsides into a form of epilogue, crowned sorrowfully by a treble soloist to whom the music in toto has by now presented many challenges. The anthem ends in the key and mood of its opening. The character of its demanding organ part reflects the possibility that it may one day be orchestrated.

My song is love unknown was composed in memory of Michael Renton, a craftsman and largely self-taught ‘Renaissance’ man who was not only a member of the Winchester cathedral congregation but also the cathedral’s stonemason. He was beloved of many in the Cathedral community; a true and humble artist, of whose rare order Traherne surely spoke when he wrote: ‘Whosoever will profit in the mystery of Felicity, must see the objects of his happiness, and the manner how they are to be enjoyed, and discern also the powers of his soul by which he is to enjoy them’. My song is love unknown was written for the Southern Cathedrals Festival in Winchester 2002.

Jeremy Filsell 2003

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