James McCarthy
Classic FM

Great musicians are born of thousands of hours spent practicing alone, learning the craft. Great musicianship is not about flashy virtuosity, slithery social networking or eye-popping websites. No amount of PR wizardry is going to make you a great artist. Some make dramatic breakthroughs as teenagers (witness Benjamin Grosvenor) but most will take much longer. There's no rush, it's not a race. Take your time and choose the right moment. And, most importantly, learn from the best. This recording is a good place to start. Budding singers, composers, conductors and producers everywhere take note: this is how it's done.

Paul McCreesh founded the Gabrieli Consort in 1982 and for 15 years had a productive recording relationship with DeutscheGrammophon, winning numerous accolades along the way. But over time it became clear that McCreesh and DG had different artistic visions, so they amicably parted company and McCreesh bravely formed his own label, Winged Lion, and recorded the massive Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts (which we awarded five stars in our December issue) and this, their glorious second album.

A Song of Farewell was recorded in the warmly reverberant acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. The singing is immaculate. James MacMillan's A Child's Prayer builds from a quietly pulsing heart beat, deep in the bass register, and blooms ecstatically on the words 'Joy and love my heart are filling'. The soprano soloists Amy Moore and Kirsty Hopkins deserve a special mention for sustaining a sumptuous tone whilst all the while their voices ascend heavenward. MacMillan's music is as technically demanding as it is emotionally powerful and it is a wonder that these exceptional young singers make it all sound so effortless.

Herbert Howells composed his Requiem in 1932, but the music went on to have a life far beyond its initial intent. In 1935 Howells' nine-year-old son Michael died suddenly of polio; it was a tragedy that would colour Howells' life and music until the day he died nearly 50 years later. Howells worked through the suffocating grief to produce one of the most highly regarded British choral works of all, Hymnus paradisi, borrowing music from his unperformed Requiem. This recording of the original work is intoxicatingly beautiful, the surprise cadence at the close of the 'Salvator Mundi' movement, in particular, is delicately glorious.

The album begins with a setting of 'Drop, drop, slow tears' by Orlando Gibbons. It is the simplest of hymn tunes and a deeply consideredway to start this musical journey. It returns the listener to the essential elements of choral music, simply words and a tune. Gibbons's melody is followed by William Walton's setting of the same text and the juxtaposition of the two works serves to demonstrate bow the dramatic potential of a text can be unlocked with perfectly judged use of harmony. So now that the musical building blocks are in place—words, melody and harmony—the traversalof choral lamentation spanning the centuries can begin in earnest.

In a world in which it seems that so much of so little inherent artistic value is rewarded with so much press coverage, where Saturday night prime-time karaoke competitions make breathless claims to represent the final word on the art of singing, this album (and indeed virtually all of the albums that we have reviewed favourably in this magazine over the years) serves as a vital reminder that there is more depth of feeling, emotional power and intellectual stimulation to the art of music-making than we can ever hope to truly understand. All we can do is applaud.