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Bairstow, Harris & Stanford: Choral works

Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor), Peter Holder (organ) Detailed performer information
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: March 2018
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: May 2019
Total duration: 75 minutes 35 seconds

Cover artwork: Westminster Abbey organ case: angel with portable organ.
Copyright © Dean and Chapter of Westminster
 

Three composers whose contributions to the Anglican choral tradition are rich in historical significance: no less than the Abbey itself, much of this music is inseparably bound up with the national celebrations or commemorations appropriate to war, coronation and royal marriage.

Reviews

‘The revelation for me was Stanford’s powerful response to the unfolding carnage of the Great War, his 1915 anthem For lo, I raise up. Beneath the superficial swagger lies one of his most inspired works. The choral singing here is breathtakingly good … the expert craftsmanship of these three composers has been truly well served by James O’Donnell and his wonderful musicians’ (Gramophone)

‘What we have here is, unashamedly, music of a particular age, performed in one of the noblest of sacred spaces of England by one of its finest choirs. This disc could be no better introduction to the music of these three major composers for the Anglican Church and is a great addition to an already established CD collection … the performances here are excellent. The choir shows complete affinity with the music and there is skilful accompaniment from Peter Holder, who brings off the quasi-orchestral accompaniments with great aplomb. The highlight for me is For lo, I raise up—full of passion and a superb interpretation of the text from all concerned’ (Cathedral Music)» More

‘This is a disc of mainstream, conservative Anglican music, yet also of works which have stayed in the repertory as they are cracking good ones … here too are consistently cracking good performances from WAC with a generous measure of clarity, sensitivity and, where appropriate, drama’ (MusicWeb International)

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Edward Cuthbert Bairstow (1874-1946) did his apprentice years as organist of Wigan Parish Church between 1899 and 1906. He then moved to the more prestigious post of Leeds Parish Church where he composed his introit Let all mortal flesh keep silence for unaccompanied choir in the first year of his appointment there (though the anthem was not published until 1925). Using the translation by J M Neale from the ‘Divine Liturgy of St James’ (later popularized by Gerard Moultrie’s translation in The English Hymnal), Bairstow’s masterly through-composed structure superbly captures a sense of mystery in its opening and closing statements in vivid contrast to the exultation of the cherubim and seraphim in its climactic bars. Composed in 1914, not long after Bairstow was appointed at York Minster, Blessed city, heavenly Salem, his most famous creation, was written for the churches at Heaton, Bradford. Based on the seventh-century plainsong hymn ‘Urbs beata Hierusalem’—which accounts for its peculiarly modal properties (and its special affinity with Elgar’s similar harmonic practices)—the anthem is a dramatic series of choral variations on the plainsong material. There is also a major role for the organ, especially where it conveys the anthem from its apogee to the tranquil final variation. In this ultimate statement, a chorale version of the plainsong in a modal B flat minor supports a poignant and gentle fluid upper melody for trebles (‘To this temple, where we call thee’) full of longing and understated melancholy. Bairstow later orchestrated his anthem for string orchestra and organ (probably at the request of Charles Macpherson, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral) in which form it was sung at the Empire Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral on 18 June 1924.

In an idiom which owes its origins to Anglican chant, The Lamentation was written in 1942. The text, from Jeremiah, was chosen by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of York and a liturgical innovator, and was used at York Minster for Lenten Fridays, Passion Sunday and Matins during Holy Week. Another carefully conceived variation structure, the Lamentations are constructed in three sections: the first (verses 1-7) is titled ‘The prophet mourneth for the sins of the people of God’; the second (vv. 8-16) ‘Christ recalleth us to God by his Passion’; and the third (vv. 17-26) ‘The Church repenteth and turneth again’. The first two sections begin with the same chant, but, anchored to C minor, continue with different variations on the initial statement. The more resolute third statement, in A flat, is based on a new variation. All three sections conclude with a refrain in C major (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God’).

After cutting his teeth as Assistant Organist of Lichfield Cathedral, William Harris (1883-1973) was appointed as organist of New College, Oxford, in 1919 and Christ Church, Oxford, in 1929. In 1933 he moved to St George’s Chapel, Windsor: a position he held until his retirement in 1961. Harris is best known today for his two double-choir motets, Faire is the heaven (1925), written for New College choir, and Bring us, O Lord God (1959), composed towards the end of his career at St George’s. Using selected lines from Edmund Spenser’s ‘A Hymne of Heavenly Beauty’, Faire is the heaven is a subtle ternary structure. Dextrous in his use of diatonic dissonance in the outer sections (something he undoubtedly gleaned from Parry), Harris reserved the central part for more adventurous tonal development deploying a process of third-related keys before recapitulating the opening material in modified form. Cast in the same key (D flat major), Bring us, O Lord God, a setting of John Donne’s ‘A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29, 1628’, makes use of the same rich diatonicism and third-related procedures, though its shorter and less image-driven design is through-composed. Of particular note is the magical coda in which Harris seems to take us conclusively to B flat major, only for the very last chord to restore the celestial ambience of D flat.

Published in 1948, the Flourish for an Occasion dates from 1947, the year of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh. As its title suggests, its grand quasi-orchestral gestures make full use of the romantic organ, and Harris, a master of modulation and a true inheritor of the diatonic style and language of Parry, contrasts the heraldic material of the outer paragraphs with quieter poetic introspection in the central section.

With words taken from Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah and the Book of Common Prayer, Strengthen ye the weak hands was composed for the opening service of the Canterbury Festival in Canterbury Cathedral on 25 June 1949 to commemorate the Science and Art of Healing. More symphonically conceived (like Stanford’s For lo, I raise up), the anthem is framed by a theme exclusive to the organ. An introductory recitative for solo tenor leads to the main body of the anthem—a ternary design for the full choir, beginning with the text that gave rise to its title. The longer secondary paragraph (‘Then shall the eyes of the blind’) of this tripartite structure leads to a fuller, affirmative restatement of the first idea before the anthem concludes with a wistful recurrence of the organ theme and a more austere, declamatory coda (‘O Saviour of the world’) for the full choir.

Organist and Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1873 and 1892, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) composed his Evening Service in A, Op 12, in response to a commission from John Stainer for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1880. The piece was therefore conceived very much with the accompaniment of the orchestra in mind and its role in the service very much influenced its symphonic design. It also explains the somewhat demanding nature of the Magnificat (especially the opening) in Stanford’s transcription for the organ. The organic nature of the Magnificat, which thoroughly develops the initial four-note cell (C#–D–E–A) heard at the opening, owes much to the spirit and exuberance of Brahms’s early orchestral serenades, though there is also much in the more stormy central section (‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’) which Stanford had learned from the pages of Ein deutsches Requiem, Op 45 (1865–8), and Das Schicksalslied, Op 54 (1871). This may also be said of the Nunc dimittis which is a through-composed instrumental essay par excellence. Deeply affecting in its valedictory sensibility, the movement lays stress on the opening line of Simeon’s exclamation (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’) not only as part of the choir’s initial statement but as its last. The climax (‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’) also betrays Stanford’s love of opera and more specifically his admiration of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, which he had heard at Bayreuth in 1876.

With words from the wisdom literature of Ecclesiasticus chapter 24, A Song of Wisdom, the last of the Six Bible Songs, Op 113, dates from 1909 and was written for the soprano Agnes Nicholls, renowned at that time for her major roles in opera and oratorio. Stanford’s Bible Songs occupy a unique place in English church music in that they clearly have connections with the secular Lieder tradition, yet, with organ accompaniment (which is itself more expansive and symphonic in design and structure) the songs seem to take on the apparel of a short solo cantata, particularly when they are sung with the additional ‘hymn anthem’ at the conclusion. As an apposite counterpart to ‘A Song of Wisdom’, Stanford composed the pastoral essay O for a closer walk with God (based on the Scottish Psalter tune Caithness and William Cowper’s words) with an organ accompaniment derived from the thematic material of the ‘song’.

Stanford was asked to provide a setting of the Gloria in excelsis for the Coronation of George V in 1911. The result, completed just before Christmas 1910, was a sophisticated offering for large orchestra, chorus, semi-chorus and soprano soloist. (The following year the composer also added other movements of the Communion Service and published the work as the Festal Communion Service in B flat, Op 128). The ebullient opening chord progression of the Gloria pays tribute to the first choral statement of Parry’s I was glad in its move from B flat to the dominant of C. Stanford, however, prolongs this imposing dominant, transporting us from the glory of heaven to the peace of earth before restoring B flat major once again. The central lyrical paragraph, sung by the semi-chorus and solo soprano, has an atmosphere of prayerful supplication (‘have mercy upon us’); ‘For thou only art holy’ is used for the chromatic transition back to B flat whose arrival (‘most high in the glory’) is marked by a return of the opening jubilant material and the original lively tempo.

The anthem For lo, I raise up, Op 145, was completed on 1 November 1915 and was undoubtedly written as a response by the composer to the terrible realities of the First World War. As the war dragged on and the bombing of London began, Stanford was forced to leave his home and move to the safer environment of Windsor where he often attended evensong at St George’s Chapel, then directed by his RCM colleague, Sir Walter Parratt. For lo, I raise up may well have been intended for the choir of St George’s, but it was not sung there until Sunday 29 October 1939, after the anthem was published by Stainer & Bell. And to mark this first hearing of the anthem, Guy Stanford, the composer’s son, donated the manuscript to the chapel archive with a dedication to the Dean and Canons of Windsor and the inscription ‘In Memoriam 1914–1939’, signifying the awful truth that the anthem’s first performance took place at the beginning of a second world conflict just as the work had been written a year after the outbreak of the first. A vehement indictment of the ‘bitter and hasty nation’, the opening of the anthem is a stormy, turbulent business in F minor. But, amid the violence and destruction, assurance comes with Habbakuk’s vision of peace (‘We shall not die’) in F major. Animated by a sense of divine destiny (‘The vision is yet for the appointed time’) and an impassioned acclamation of faith (‘For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord’), the anthem closes with a compelling stillness as one is reminded of God’s awful omnipotence (‘But the Lord is in his holy temple’).

Jeremy Dibble © 2019

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