Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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Ivo Antognini writes in an idiom which is mellifluous and approachable, as befits a composer with an early background in film, television and jazz and who now concentrates on choral composition.
Come to me (2019) was written for The Aeolians of Oakwood University, Alabama, conducted by Jason Max Ferdinand. The text is by one of the composer’s favourite poets, Christina Rossetti. Originally entitled Echo, this poignant poem concerns a person who has lost their beloved long ago and only through dreams is able to have an echo of what once was but never will be again. In his setting, the composer seeks to empathize with and to describe the feelings of the grieving protagonist.
Written for Stephen Layton and The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Canticum novum (2013) is a bright and jubilant work. The fanfare-like motif introduced by the first sopranos and basses in the opening bar is followed by a series of chanting chords in the inner voices. These chords repeat seven consecutive times, like a mantra, on the text ‘canticum novum’, using an irregular ostinato rhythm (3+2+2+2). The number seven signifies the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in Christianity: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.
O magnum mysterium (2010) is a brief but powerful piece written as a Christmas gift for a small church choir directed by the composer’s wife, Patrizia. Premiered by the Vancouver Chamber Choir the following October, it remains the composer’s most popular work, having been performed in over fifty countries. The score is divided into three parts. In the first, in a major key, the four voices interweave contrapuntally to announce the miracle of the birth of Christ. The second part is in a minor key, with a darker, melancholy hue, and leads into the third, concluding section. Cast in Mixolydian mode, the final ‘Alleluia’ has a triumphant and luminous character, but the short coda reverts to a more intimate and tranquil mood. O magnum mysterium speaks of awe and wonderment at the coming of Christ—‘the great mystery’.
Lux aeterna (2012), for a cappella eight-part mixed choir, is dedicated to the composer’s mother, Amelia, and to his father, Giorgio. In this piece he wanted to blend a simple, timeless melodic idea—descending and ascending scales—with harmonic textures that are more complex and modern, all within a rather contrapuntal framework. The tonal shifts and fluid nature of the piece have a hypnotic effect on the listener. In the final chord, the highest note of the tenors (G=Giorgio) and the lowest of the altos (A=Amelia) symbolize the names of the composer’s parents lying next to each other in the middle of this suspended context. Lux aeterna was premiered by the De Angelis Vocal Ensemble and conductor Matthew Gray in October 2012 at their ‘Modern Masters’ concert.
Regina caeli (2020) is dedicated to Pietro Ferrario and his mixed choir Ensemble Vocale Calycanthus. The work has a unique atmosphere, derived from its text. According to Ferrario, who premiered the piece:
It is not a grandiose and dramatic setting, as often is the case, but has a consistent and measured gait from which a surprising, luminous yet intimate exultation emerges. The initial idea in A minor, built on the tenor/bass voices in ostinato, returns several times in slight variations as a refrain. These are interspersed with contrasting episodes of rhythm and harmony, an effect unmistakably personal and characteristic of the Swiss composer. Episodic but easily recognizable is the appearance of the incipit of the Gregorian antiphon, the last of which leads to a triumphal and dazzling coda.
Hope is the thing with feathers (2020) takes its title from one of the most famous texts by the American poet Emily Dickinson, in which Hope is represented by a little bird that comes down to earth and rests on our soul to protect us in difficult moments without asking anything in return. In the composer’s words: ‘The piece is dedicated to a friend of mine, choir director Dario Piumatti, who during the first phase of the [COVID-19] pandemic was seriously ill, but fortunately managed to heal completely, perhaps thanks to that little bird …’
Surge amica mea (2019) was written for the conductor Luca Scaccabarozzi and his choir Ensemble Vocale Mousiké, but the work was premiered by Stephen Layton and The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in February 2020, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The composer writes:
The Song of Solomon is unique within the Old Testament. It speaks not of law or covenant and neither does it talk of the God of Israel, but instead explores sexual love and matrimony. There is initially a shyness to the musical phrases accompanying this text but, little by little, the phrases lengthen and extend to a climax with quite rich harmonies. The coda is the very image of serenity and contentment, for ‘your voice is sweet, and your face is comely’.
Gloria in excelsis (2018) was written for the Batavia Madrigal Singers, conducted by Avip Priatna, for their participation in a prestigious choral competition in Tolosa, Spain. Antognini wanted to write a piece for the singers that would display their technical and expressive abilities while avoiding unnecessary difficulties. The first section presents two contrasting themes in alternation, the first rhythmic and the second lyrical. After a transitional episode there emerges a new theme before the coda. Both the third theme and the coda present a ‘combination’ of the two main themes. In the coda, which is the most contrapuntal section, the rhythm stabilizes and settles in 3/4 time, three symbolizing the perfect number and the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, the coda is almost exclusively made up of ascending scales, representing the ascent from earth to heaven.
In his Trinity Service (2021) Antognini used the text of the Magnificat as if it were the storyboard of a film. He tried to describe in the utmost detail the emotion the words conveyed to him and the images they suggested. In this composition he has used word-painting, attempting to colour as many words, phrases and situations as possible; hence the score is full of expression markings such as ‘majestic’, ‘with vigour’, ‘lively’, ‘intense’, ‘with affection’ and ‘with verve’. The result is a piece that changes texture rather quickly, and its noble opening theme (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’) returns only once in abbreviated form (‘He hath filled the hungry with good things’). The following Nunc dimittis has a much more meditative and intimate character with a sparser texture. There are some references to the themes presented in the Magnificat. A motif from the Magnificat, ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son’, recurs in almost the same form towards the close of the Nunc dimittis, but in a quieter vein and in 4/4 rather than the 3/4 of the Magnificat.
Dedicated to Nigel Short and the choir Tenebrae, Remembrance (2019) is a setting of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley—one of a number that the poet dedicated to Jane Williams, a close friend of his and with whom he became infatuated. The text is permeated with passion, melancholy and sweetness, and it was very exciting for the composer to set these lyrics to music. He decided to use relatively simple harmonic material, and as he puts it, ‘the words sang themselves’.
To date, Antognini has written three pieces dedicated to deceased friends; among them is Laudate Dominum (2017). The composer recalls the specific circumstances surrounding its creation:
This was a commission for which I had already chosen the text. After a month of unsuccessful attempts, I began to fear that I would not come up with a suitable beginning for the piece in time. My idea was to write a joyful and exciting composition, but all the ideas that came were sad and rather slow.
This was because my friend Francesco Crivelli had been suffering from a grave illness, gradually inching closer to death. Francesco had sung for years in the small church choir that my wife directs. One morning in December 2016, before Mass was to begin, Marina, the wife of Francesco, announced to the entire congregation, with great strength and courage, that her husband had sadly passed away. She recounted how he had spent his last days of life at home with his family and the many friends that came to visit him, and the dignity that he showed during his most painful moments. Upon hearing those words—and I will never be able to explain why—I had the inspiration for Laudate Dominum. When I arrived home, I began to write the piece, which was finished very quickly.
The premiere of Laudate Dominum took place on 5 July 2017 in Assisi, at the Basilica di San Francesco. To be seated beside Marina and one of Francesco’s daughters, Barbara, and to see some of the singers with tears in their eyes during the performance of this piece, was truly a moving experience.
Alleluia (2016) was written for the Utah-based Brigham Young University Singers, conducted by Andrew Crane. The composer found writing a piece of music using only one word to be quite a challenge, and he recalls having fun looking for all the rhythmic possibilities that worked with the word ‘Alleluia’. The piece constantly moves between two tonalities: E flat major, which has a rather peaceful and subdued colour, and G major, which, by contrast, is very bright, shimmering and luminous.
Those tender words (2017) is a setting of a poem by Rumi, the great Persian mystic. The piece uses attractive harmonic textures which the composer derived from an unusual chord chanced upon by one of his students. The score is dedicated to the Riverside City College Chamber Singers, directed by John Byun.
Antognini composed his Jubilate Deo (2015), scored for a cappella chorus and SATB soloists, for a special occasion in which the Slovenian Philharmonic Choir dedicated the second part of a concert to his unaccompanied choral music. Leading the choir that evening was conductor Matjaž Šček. A rhythmically complex piece, it is in 5/4 throughout. The opening section is deliberately spare, often in unison but alternating with fuller, more chordal textures. The intriguing harmonies of the second section prepare for the grand finale.
The Angel (2019) was written as a gift for the University of Houston Concert Chorale, directed by Betsy Cook Weber. The work is a setting of a rather cryptic poem by William Blake that describes a dream of the narrator. In the dream she was a maiden queen and her guardian angel protected her all day long. Growing older, she stopped thinking about that angel, who reappeared when she was too ‘old’ to be guided by him. The poem has throughout a sense of sadness and longing that the composer attempted to capture in his music. The finale is, in the composer’s words, ‘very much up in the air’, with a solo soprano (the narrator) singing the main theme while the other voices hold a suspended, rich chord.
Paul Conway © 2023