Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), son of Thomas Gambier Parry, wealthy artist and collector, was educated at Eton, where his considerable musical talents were recognised, and then at Oxford where he studied music both before and after a career in business in the City of London. In addition to being born into above average affluence, he was very fortunate to have grown up at Highnam Court, a glorious country house in wonderful gardens set in the English countryside in the Cotswolds.
'England’s green and pleasant land', words from William Blake’s poem And did those feet in ancient time occur in what is probably Parry’s best-known work, the choral song Jerusalem, written in 1916 at the height of World War 1, towards the end of the composer’s life. On this splendid new release from Hyperion, Jerusalem is performed in a new arrangement of the organ part by Joseph Wicks (b. 1993) based on Elgar’s arrangement for orchestra. The choir is on excellent form, the 22 choristers and 21 lay vicars under their fine Master of the Choristers and conductor, James O’Donnell, giving the listener a suitably blended sound with plenty of character.
I was glad, Parry’s anthem of 1902 and sung since at coronations at this choir’s home, Westminster Abbey, opens the programme here with additional brass and timpani provided by Onyx Brass. A big, bold sound, the arrangement emphasising the splendour of the occasion, fills the vast volume of the cathedral, home to coronations since 1066. Blest pair of sirens is an earlier work, dating from 1887 and written to celebrate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. Here, the organ part is an arrangement made by the fine organist on this release, Daniel Cook (b. 1979), and the more intimate passages show off the remarkable ensemble of the boys in particular. The choristers are educated at the Abbey Choir School, the last in Britain which caters only for those who sing in the choir, situated conveniently in Dean’s Yard.
Hear my words, ye people is a substantial piece originally performed by a very substantial choir in 1894 in Salisbury. Onyx Brass play an important part, originally taken by the band of the Royal Marines at the first performance. Again, the subtlety and ensemble of the Abbey Choir shine through in a powerful and sincere performance. Parry’s Canticles (1881), the Evening Service in D, are well-known in Cathedrals and parish choirs around the world, shine brightly in the Magnificat and provide comfort in the Nunc dimittis.
Jeremy Dibble in his excellent booklet essay suggests the piece for solo organ, a work of exceedingly long gestation, Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue in G major took inspiration from Bach’s great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and describes Parry’s as Romantic neo-Gothic; it’s certainly splendid stuff, and a demanding project. Daniel Cook gives a thoroughly grand performance on the Harrison and Harrison instrument, demonstrating the range of colour possible in this accommodating acoustic.
Recorded in June 2014 by David Hinitt, the sonics are big, faithful and impressive, especially as a high resolution 96k/24-bit download which benefits from that extra focus and depth which better-than-CD-quality offers. Interested readers can download from Hyperion’s website the Nunc dimittis from the Evening Service free of charge as 16- and 24-bit FLAC or ALAC files and compare the sound of the two resolutions for themselves. Whilst a surround option would have been welcomed wholeheartedly, especially on a physical product, the stereo recording really does reproduce the Abbey’s space very well indeed.
This seems to me a highly rewarding release of the highest quality, deserving investigation by all interested in cathedral music. It’s a testament to the long experience and fine music-making James O’Donnell has brought to London audiences, from Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and the Proms, and from his recitals around the UK and the rest of the world. It has certainly given me enormous pleasure over the past three weeks.