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Track(s) taken from CDA67497

If the Lord had not helped me

author of text
Psalm 94:17-19, 22

St John's College Choir Cambridge, David Hill (conductor), Paul Provost (organ)
Recording details: January 2007
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: July 2007
Total duration: 6 minutes 20 seconds

Other recordings available for download

St Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)


'An excellent disc in regard both to the standard of performance and to the selection of Bairstow's music. And to that should be added straight away the quality of recorded sound … the recommendation for this new issue is confirmed most decisively by the inclusion of the Five Poems of the Spirit … Roderick Williams is the ideally suited soloist and the Britten Sinfonia do justice to a delightful score' (Gramophone)

'His anthems and services … are treasured within the church. Their touch is sure, and their word-setting is impeccable … Bairstow could hardly have finer advocates than David Hill's St John's Choir, beautiful in tone and balance, admirable clear in enunciation, well supported by rhythmic organ playing, and outstandingly well recorded' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Sung with real conviction by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Bairstow was several notches above the typical organ loft composer. His best work shows a keen sense of drama and a secure grasp of musical architecture … his music has a warmth and grandeur that continues the best of the great tradition of English cathedral music … the performances here are first rate … the present recording amply demonstrates that St John's has one of the finest choirs in England. In addition, the quality of the recorded sound is delightful. It is a spacious and sumptuous sound with good presences. The Hyperion engineers manage again and again to find the formula that seems to elude so many others' (American Record Guide)

'Having praised David Hill and the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge in April 2007 for their disc of works by Jongen and Peeters, I find it a pleasure to give an emphatic nod to this new release as well … the choir's intense sound is spot-on for this repertoire; no doubt Bairstow himself would have approved' (International Record Review)

'This disc brings a most welcome surprise, the rarely heard late set for baritone, choir, and orchestra, Five Poems of the Spirit (1944). Written during the dark days of the war, these radiate the assurance we also hear in Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs … Roderick Williams sings the generous baritone solos clearly and with conviction and the Britten Sinfonia provides a solid support' (Fanfare, USA)

'The very first track on the disc for instance, 'Jesu, the very thought of thee' is quite beautifully written. The choice and use of texts was of paramount importance to Bairstow and he sets these with great care … 'Blessed city' is on a grander scale and has real passion … most surprising of all is the sheer harmonic austerity. To those expecting tedious old Anglican Church music: think again! … the real revelation is Five Poems of the Spirit … these are perhaps a close relation of the Five Mystical Songs of Vaughan Williams and inhabit the same sort of rather reflective, and, yes, mystical soundworld, setting texts by the Metaphysical Poets Richard Crashaw and George Herbert as well as a beautiful poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, 'Purse and Scrip'. Bairstow responds to this with music that is confident, bracing, imaginative, and, at times, quite magical … the wistful ending of the last setting makes one regret all the more that Bairstow didn't spend more time or have the confidence to set his mind to these larger projects. Anyone who loves English choral music will respond positively to every moment of these settings. As for the performances—the ever-reliable and versatile Roderick Williams is as eloquent as always and the Choir makes some wonderful sounds—the entry in the fourth part of Poems of the Spirit is alone worth the price of the CD alone. Warmly and enthusiastically recommended' (Classical Source)
Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) is represented on Volumes 1, 2 and 4 of this series of ‘The English Anthem’ with Blessed City, heavenly Salem and Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Volume 1), Save us, O Lord (Volume 2) and Jesu, grant me this I pray (Volume 4). The anthem recorded here, If the Lord had not helped me, is less well known than the others, but is perhaps the most beautifully crafted of all of his choral pieces. As with some of Stanford’s anthems and services, the organ’s role is significantly more than mere accompaniment. From Stanford emerged forms which broke away from the ‘full’ and ‘verse’ anthem structures which had characterised much of the repertoire. With Bairstow the relationship between the choir and organ is taken a step further than in Stanford’s music. In this piece the organ begins in the dark key of E flat minor, and presents a variety of ideas: a descending pattern in the right hand with a rising and falling accompanient. This initial pattern is repeated on a clarinet stop together with a chromatic descent. The third and fourth bars develop these two ideas: an elaborated right-hand part and reply on a clarinet stop, together with rising phrases giving way to further chromaticism. The reason for pointing out these features is that much of the material of the anthem is contained in these first bars; the choral parts enjoy a degree of independence from the figures which sustain the texture of the organ part. The beauty and skill of the construction of this work is evidenced further by the almost continuous contrary motion of the parts in the imitative entries at ‘in the multitude of the sorrows that I had in my heart’.

As with all great music, the technical construction of a work is subservient to the music. This music feels as if it is almost continuously unfolding and expanding on a vast canvas. Although this feeling is born of enviable technical control on the composer’s part, the listener is left aware only of the skill of matching the sentiment of the words to the music.

from notes by William McVicker © 1996

Other albums featuring this work

The English Anthem, Vol. 6
CDA66826Archive Service
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