The excellent idea behind this programme is to assemble a collection of pieces inspired by or in honour of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Arguably, the Elgar part song doesn’t quite fit that template but let’s welcome it as an exception that proves the rule. Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, his last collaboration with W.H. Auden, is an obvious selection and it gets an excellent performance here. However, many of the other pieces are less familiar so their inclusion is doubly welcome. Several of the pieces were composed for the annual St Cecilia’s Day service held in London under the auspices of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.
Two pieces, both here receiving their first recordings, were written for Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway. One of these is Gabriel Jackson’s La musique. I had the good fortune to attend the first performance of this piece, which was given at a Cheltenham Festival concert in July 2013, some weeks after the sessions for this recording. The piece made a strong impression on me then (review) and that’s been reinforced by the opportunity to hear it again on disc. Jackson has combined two texts in this piece, setting simultaneously the poem by Baudelaire which gives the piece its title (in French, for the soprano soloist) and a poem in English, ‘I am in need of music’ by the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979); this is sung by the choir. The music is attractive and beautifully imagined; this is another example of Jackson’s highly inventive ear for unaccompanied choral textures. The soprano solo line, which is a gift for a singer like Dame Felicity, contrasts with and complements the choral parts most effectively. The music is gorgeous, not least the soft, rapt conclusion.
James MacMillan’s Cecilia Virgo, for double choir gets the programme off to an impressive start. This celebratory piece features radiant and excitingly full choral textures and, as ever with this composer, the harmonic language is intriguing. In his notes Rupert Gough points out that MacMillan has his two choirs singing in different keys at the start of the work and that over a hundred years earlier Elgar also used twin tonalities in There is sweet music. Arguably that was, at the time, a more daring device than would be the case nowadays. Elgar slightly smooths over the radical nature of the harmonies because his dynamics are quiet. Nonetheless, this is a more novel device than we might expect to find in a turn-of-the-century English part song. The Royal Holloway singers are equally adept in both of these pieces.
I don’t know if it’s more than a nice coincidence but two of the pieces involve settings of poems by Ursula Vaughan Williams. She provided the words for her husband’s lovely Silence and Music, which is given an exquisite performance here. A few years later she furnished the text for A Hymn for St. Cecilia by Howells. This piece is markedly different in style to the offering from RVW. Where Silence and Music is subtle and delicate Howells provides a sturdy, hymn-like setting. Both are highly effective in their different ways: the soaring soprano descant that Howells adds above the unison tune in the last stanza of his piece is most striking.
The Howells is one of four pieces – the last four on the programme – which include an organ accompaniment. Dyson’s Live for ever, glorious Lord features an important soprano solo part which is superbly sung here by Jessica Smith, one of the Royal Holloway sopranos. William Mason’s playing of the substantial organ part is equally impressive. Sing, mortals! Is the last choral work that Sir Arthur Bliss wrote. I don’t recall hearing it before and it strikes me that the music is a notable response to the text.
This is a most interesting and nicely varied programme of music. The singing is consistently fine. The choir’s blend is excellent and I admire very much the fresh tone that they produce. Rupert Gough, as we know from previous releases, trains his choir marvellously and this disc is another notable achievement. With Adrian Peacock and David Hinitt serving as producer and engineer respectively it’s no surprise that the recordings are excellent. Quite a few of these pieces will be unfamiliar to many collectors, which adds to the attraction of this splendid disc.