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Beauty for ashes

The Elysian Singers, Sam Laughton (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2022
Great Hall, UCS, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Dave Rowell
Release date: May 2024
Total duration: 67 minutes 4 seconds

An album celebrating the vibrancy—and variety—of contemporary choral composers and welcoming a good number of new names to the catalogue: some real finds await.

The Elysian Singers have from their start nearly 40 years ago championed contemporary choral music. Beauty for ashes is a unique collection of unrecorded music from some of the UK’s foremost choral composers.

Whilst the programme includes well-established names from classical music such as Bob Chilcott and Judith Weir, Judith Bingham and Roxanna Panufnik, it also includes newer voices such as Alison Willis, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and Sarah Macdonald. Half of the contemporary composers featured on the recording are women, and their work exemplifies the enormous contribution female composers are making to the English choral tradition, in a genre where they have been historically under-represented and under-recorded.

The principal aim of the recording is to enable these compositions to find new audiences and to promote the creation of new choral works. At a time when the sacred choral tradition is under severe threat from budget cuts, Beauty for ashes reveals the vibrancy and variety of contemporary composition.

Sarah MacDonald (b1968): Crux fidelis
Crux fidelis is an anthem for Passiontide, or for use on Holy Cross Day. The composer writes: ‘I have used the Latin phrase ‘Faithful Cross’ as a meditative refrain, and I hope that the mantra-like repetition of this motif will evoke in listeners both an emotional and a prayerful response to the image of the crucifixion. By contrast, the narrative words of Emily Dickinson and Emilia Lanier tell the story of the cross more literally, from the point of view of the faithful thief, and of an observer.’

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b1980): Psalm 6
This setting was commissioned for the 2014 Festival of Saint Cecilia and first performed by the combined choirs of Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, directed by Martin Baker. The composer writes: ‘The theme of [the] festival [was] ‘It’ll All be over by Christmas’ (a reference to the general view of people in the UK at the start of World War I). The challenge for me was to write a new work which related to this theme, but at the same time would fit into a religious service (and ideally have a performance life in the future in both religious and non-religious contexts) … Martin Baker and Father Alexander (at Westminster Cathedral) were incredibly helpful, suggesting that as a starting point I look to the Psalms for inspiration. Psalm 6 struck me immediately, and to me it seemed as if some of the passages could have been uttered by men in the trenches as the hope of being home by Christmas rapidly dissolved into the mud … My new anthem was also directly inspired by attending a service at Westminster Cathedral—hearing Father Alexander and the choir perform the Responsorial Psalms was the main influence for the opening of my work (which, in the mindset of beginning the anthem conjured up many ideas about the individual and the masses in times of war—how the voice of one ‘soldier’ could gradually be added to until an entire ‘army’ (in my mind’s eye) were pleading to God for mercy. Thus in my new work, the opening is for a solo tenor, with individual voices being added until the words 'how long' where the whole choir joins in and repeats and repeats these words in a supplication which could just as easily apply to the conflicts of today as to a war which went way beyond the Christmas of 1914.’

Ian Stephens (b1974): Salisbury Service
This setting was commissioned by Nick and Eleanor Steinitz in memory of their son Chris, who died in 1997 aged just 22. It was first performed in 2016 by the choir of Salisbury Cathedral, of which Chris himself had been a member. The composer said of the commission: ‘I never had a chance to meet Chris, but he was about my age and was known by many of my friends. I would have loved to have known him. Nick and Eleanor, his parents, asked for the work to be more a celebration than a doleful piece of remembrance, and I have kept this in mind while writing the piece—if certain passages remind you of Janáček, MacMillan, Britten, Howells or birdsong, then I will be satisfied.’

Alison Willis (b1971): I sing of a maiden
The composer writes: ‘This setting reflects elements of the medieval through use of open fifths at the start and end and largely modal harmonies but with a distinctly twentieth-century flavour to the harmonies. The choir frequently uses vocalizations in order to let the words be heard and whilst some of the harmony is complex it is always led by the individual vocal lines’. The carol was the winner of the Nick Edwards prize at its premiere in 2016.

Roxanna Panufnik (b1968): Hymn to St Alfege
The composer writes: ‘When I was approached by Greenwich’s Church of St Alfege to compose an anthem to mark its patron saint’s millennium (of his death in 1012), it was to Frances Shaw’s wonderful translation of Osbern’s Life of Alfege that I turned. The last paragraph sounded like an emotional and plaintive prayer to Alfege, referring to his terrible demise having been kidnapped by marauding Danes who then pelted him to death with animal bones—because he would not give them Canterbury’s riches to secure his release. I would love to use all of Frances’ beautiful translation but it would have been too long for this purpose—so my classicist husband Stephen Macklow-Smith translated these last few lines of the original text again and wrote a simpler but deeply plaintive poem inspired by it—making the words sound more like the kind of vernacular an ordinary person might use when asking Alfege for his help in straightened times. I have tried to add authenticity to my Hymn by using a fragment of plainsong (Kyrie Orbis Factor, Use of Salisbury), which would have been sung in southern England around the time of Alfege’s death. I have set the first phrase of the original Latin text, ‘Magni Regis, magne miles’, to the plainsong, as an ostinato that runs through the piece.’

Owain Park (b1993): Beati quorum via
This reflective setting was commissioned for Wells Cathedral in 2014. Although the composer is consciously indebted to Stanford’s famous motet on the same text, he sensibly takes the music in a much more flexible direction, both harmonically and rhythmically. Nonetheless, the final three notes of the first bass part, to be sung ‘un peu en dehors’ directly quote from the Stanford original.

Judith Bingham (b1952): The Pilgrimes Travels
The composer writes: ‘The Reverend Lucy Winkett, who was the first female priest at St Paul’s Cathedral, commissioned this piece for the Cathedral Choir when she left her post as Precentor there in 2010. It felt appropriate to use a text by Emilia Lanier, the Elizabethan poet, who lived nearby to Old St Paul’s. Her poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611, made her the first female professional poet in Britain. Her family on both sides were luthiers, and so the anthem is based on a simple four-note motif (A-B-D-C sharp) from a Fantasy for viols by her brother-in-law, Alfonso Ferrabosco.’

David Lancaster (b1960): Feathers
This is the first of the composer’s three choral settings of Ovid (the others being ‘Fell’ and ‘Flight’) collectively called Fables. ‘Feathers’ (especially in its use of an offstage soprano soloist) describes the beautiful songs of the Sirens, which lured sailors to their deaths. It was commissioned for the Elysian Singers to first perform at York’s Late Music festival in 2021.

Judith Weir (b1954): Leaf from leaf Christ knows
This typically quirky setting by the Master of the King’s Music was commissioned for Wells Cathedral. Its choral language and structure beautifully mirror the deceptively simplistic form of the original poem, with the extended organ interludes providing a more substantial expression of the underlying theology.

Owen Leech (b1971): The Lily of Heaven
First performed by Irishini on their 2012 tour to Poland, this is a double choir setting of a Cummings poem in which the English version and Polish translation are sung simultaneously, producing a remarkable effect as the very different tone qualities of the two languages alternate in prominence or merge together. The composer writes: ‘The text is one of the American poet’s more elusive creations, at once nocturnal, sensuous, spare—so precise intelligibility during performance was not a high priority. I set the text in the two languages more or less simultaneously—the choirs either overlapping in antiphonal blocks or collaborating in imitative polyphony—so that the sounds of languages (sometimes radically different, at others surprisingly similar) are almost always enmeshed.’

Bob Chilcott (b1955): Beauty for ashes
St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, one of Christopher Wren’s most iconic creations, was largely gutted by fire during the London Blitz in 1940. It was faithfully rebuilt (with its famously tall spire) and rededicated in 1957 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. This haunting but sensuous motet, on a highly suitable text, was composed for a service of celebration in 2007, marking the 50th anniversary of the church’s rededication.

Paul Edwards (b1955): God be in my head
As an organist, choir master, and singer, Paul Edwards’s compositional output overwhelmingly consists of sacred music for the Anglican Church. His ability to encapsulate economically the spirit of the text is encapsulated in this transcendent setting of a famous blessing.

Sam Laughton © 2024

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