The music of Parry and Stanford forms the backbone of this collection of a cappella British choral music.
Stanford’s Three Motets were composed probably in the late 1880s, during his time in charge of the music at Trinity College, Cambridge. We know that Justorum animæ was sung in the College chapel on at least two occasions, in 1888 and in 1892. That motet unfolds spaciously here, with all the choral lines clear. I like the sound of the choir and there’s just the right degree of edge to the trebles’ tone as we discover in the lively, festive Cælos ascendit hodie. My own favourite among the motets is the wonderful, glowing Beati quorum via. Here, James O’Donnell achieves an ideal flow. That magical transition back to the opening material is expertly managed.
It’s a good idea to follow these pieces which Stanford composed at Trinity with a set of evening canticles composed by Alan Gray. He had the unenviable task of following Stanford as Organist of the college, serving from 1893 to 1930. I say unenviable because, as Jeremy Dibble points out in his notes, the choir was in decline when Gray took over, not through any fault of his or Stanford’s but because the college authorities did not commit sufficient resources to the choir; the choir school was closed in 1896, for example. Gray’s F minor canticles, published in 1912, are for unaccompanied double choir. As I listened to this accomplished performance I wondered if the Trinity choir of his day were up to the demands of Gray’s writing in places such as the passage in the Magnificat beginning at ‘He hath showed strength with his arm’.
This carefully constructed programme then offers a ‘Mag and Nunc’ in B flat, albeit by two different composers. Charles Wood wrote two Latin settings of the Nunc dimittis for R R Terry and the choir of Westminster Cathedral. This six-part B flat setting (SSATBB), completed in 1916, is the first of them. Expertly crafted, it makes a good impression here. However, Wood’s piece is rather dwarfed by Stanford’s Magnificat. Jeremy Dibble draws attention to the Bachian nature of the elaborate counterpoint; that’s certainly in evidence in the opening paragraph and when the material is reprised at ‘Gloria Patri’. Stanford’s music is a technical triumph but just as admirable is its variety according to the demands of the text. Composed in September 1918, Stanford intended it as a tribute to Parry with whom he’d been reconciled not long before after a rift had arisen between them. Sadly, however, Parry died just a few weeks after the work was completed and instead Stanford dedicated it to his memory.
And so, we arrive at this programme’s destination: Parry’s magnificent Songs of Farewell. In my opinion, very few works in the a cappella English choral repertoire match these six settings in terms of technical accomplishment and response to texts allied with depth of feeling. I suppose Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor comes closest. Each one of the settings reveals mastery in part-writing and it’s surely significant that, after the second song, Parry gradually expands the number of choral parts from the initial four up to eight as his writing becomes ever deeper.
We see the mastery of polyphony right from the start; it’s displayed in several passages of ‘My soul, there is a country’. For me, though, what’s most telling about this piece is the use that Parry makes of rests for expressive effect. In ‘I know my soul hath power’ I was struck by the expert way in which James O’Donnell skilfully and subtly modifies the tempi. The five-part ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ contains the most intricate part-writing so far in the set, notably at ‘O come quickly, sweetest Lord’ and its mirror episode in the second stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem. It’s all rendered with exemplary clarity here. ‘There is an old belief’ expands the texture to six parts. It’s another wonderful response by Parry to his chosen text and arguably the entire set reaches a peak of eloquence with the music that Parry composed for the last couplet, ‘Eternal be the sleep, / If not to waken so’. The Westminster Abbey choir meets the expressive challenge with great success. For ‘At the round earth’s imagined corner’ Parry divides his choir into seven parts. On the face of it, the opening music seems odd; it seems to invite pace but Parry’s marking is ‘Slow’. James O’Donnell judges the tempo ideally. In so doing he trusts the composer who, of course, knew exactly what he was doing; the music soon acquires urgency of its own volition, first through the use of short note values and then from a swifter tempo. As the piece unfolds, Parry’s harmonic language becomes ever more adventurous and searching. This is visionary music and the polyphony is very impressive—as is the clarity with which the Westminster choir lays it before us. ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ is the longest and most ambitious of the set. Luxuriantly scored for double SATB choir, Parry’s piece is a dignified, highly expressive response to the words of Psalm 39. The double-choir writing is resourceful and the Hyperion engineering lets us hear both choirs very well. The quality of the music is superb, especially the movingly elegiac ending (‘O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength before I go hence and be no more’) .
James O’Donnell and his fine choir give an excellent performance of these incomparable Parry songs. There have been some first-rate accounts of the Songs of Farewell on disc, including those by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge and Richard Marlow and, even more so, by Tenebrae and Nigel Short. Those recordings, though are by mixed choirs with female sopranos (a sound I tend to prefer in this music). I can’t readily recall hearing a version by an all-male choir which is more impressive than this newcomer.
The technical side of the recording was in the highly experienced hands of David Hinitt (engineer) and Adrian Peacock (producer). They’ve achieved very satisfying results in the acoustic of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, which seems ideally suited to repertoire such as this. The booklet essay is by Jeremy Dibble, who writes with his customary authority in these matters.