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Plebs angelica

author of text
Manuscript of St Martial of Limoges

For the start of the fourth and final Chapter we are back to unaccompanied choir, now divided antiphonally. Finnissy chose to take Tippett’s 1943 motet, Plebs angelica, as his starting point. Whilst giving a different slant, this fits my original conception well, because Tippett was much influenced by sixteenth-century music in his motet. For the text, Finnissy reuses the medieval Latin sequence in honour of St Michael, which had been set by Tippett. Like the John Donne trope in Videte miraculum, this text is mystical and contemplative. Finnissy has described Tippett as one of his biggest influences—indeed the older composer wrote charming letters to him. Tippett once told Finnissy that 'being a composer in England' (unlike other countries) 'was like crossing a desert without a map'. Tippett is also a significant composer for St John’s, having written the College’s greatest musical commission of the twentieth century, his Magnificat and Nunc dimittis.

In Plebs angelica, a vision of heaven, Finnissy creates a big contrast with the other two unaccompanied motets. He describes it as being like a chant with canons. Unlike the other motets this work is predominantly homophonic and it is scored for double choir; one choir sings in Latin while the other sings the same text in English in the composer’s own translation. The motet’s opening clearly underlines the cycle’s tonal centre of a modal G, whilst it ends suspended on a lone top G, just as the first movement of the cantata has done.

In his remarkable book, Soundscapes, Paul Robertson describes his experience of an aorta operation in which his heart was stopped for a lengthy period:

As I lay there waiting, I felt myself die—beautifully, ecstatically, transcendently. I saw eternity and shed the whole of myself joyfully in order to become unified with it.

Finnissy seems able to offer us a glimpse of what Robertson experienced. The final section of Plebs angelica opens a door into new worlds not accessible to the rest of us, a door into eternity: 'transferte nos in Paradisicolas'—'transport us unto those who dwell in Paradise'.

Beethoven is another composer who possesses this visionary ability. Indeed, the organic nature of the whole cycle makes me think of Beethoven —I’m sure that I will keep finding more depths, beauties and interconnections in this music for the rest of my life, just as I will with late Beethoven quartets.

Harmonically Plebs angelica is perhaps the most challenging anthem the choir has performed in my time. The most elaborate chords are generally derived from the original 'Jesum' chords, but often in more intense forms with up to ten of the twelve available pitch classes heard simultaneously. However, the careful spacing of the chords in each choir leads to a transparency of texture; we try to let the listener hear exactly what the notes are, rather than obfuscating the pitches with excessive vibrato.

The first non-diatonic note in the treble parts is the strikingly expressive E flat at 'Virtus', signifying valour and courage; this pitch class is to assume further importance in the final work of the cycle. The central section of the piece, 'And fire-headed Seraphim', starts with a very striking texture: in each of the two choirs, the four voice-parts each sing a minor ninth higher than the part below. This creates an extraordinary soundworld, like two whole galaxies passing one another. It is the ultimate amplification of the semitones contained within the third 'Jesum' of the opening anthem.

After this passage the texture thins for a stark entreaty to Michael, the Archangel, the heavenly warrior. The name Michael is derived from a Hebrew expression meaning 'Who is like unto God?'. There is a mesmerising, shimmering quality to the next section, 'Gabrielque vera', whilst the airborne, contrapuntal ending, 'transferte nos', takes flight with angelic wings, as the music transports us to Paradise. Heavenly bodies float around without gravity. This is a parallel to the effect at the start of Videte miraculum when the Angel Gabriel floats down to Mary, but now there are innumerable angels. Although the rhythms look complicated on the page, our aim has been to make this passage sound unfettered and effortless. Writing on Dante’s Paradiso, Dorothy L Sayers describes how the narrator 'ascends to a region beyond physical existence … and becomes enveloped in light, rendering him fit to see God':

We rise into a heaven of pure light—
Of intellectual light, light full of sheer
Pure love, love full of goodness true and right,
Love full of joy, joy so sweet as to shame
All other sweet things else.
(Canto 30; 48-52, in the translation of the late Clive James)

Our choral journey ends in heaven, reminding us of Jesus’s words in the Gospel for the last Sunday of the Church’s year: 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23: 43)

from notes by Andrew Nethsingha © 2020


Finnissy: Pious Anthems & Voluntaries
Studio Master: SIGCD624Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 9 on SIGCD624 CD2 [7'59] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD624 disc 2 track 9

Recording date
18 July 2019
Recording venue
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Chris Hazell
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Finnissy: Pious Anthems & Voluntaries (SIGCD624)
    Disc 2 Track 9
    Release date: August 2020
    Download only
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