Album Review

Posted: Wednesday 9th March 2011
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Great British Anthems – Gramophone

The Vasari Singers under their founder, Jeremy Backhouse, here demonstrate their versatility in a wide-ranging collection of anthems designed for Anglican worship. Though Backhouse has female sopranos and altos instead of the traditional boys’ voice, their timbre is always fresh and bright, and apt for this music.

The opening item, Blest Pair of Sirens is Hubert Parry’s best-known anthem, a rip-roaring setting of John Milton’s poem “At a solemn musick”. It is introduced by an elaborate organ solo, and though the organ sound is rich and full on the disc, the reverberant acoustic of the beautifully restored Chapel of Tonbridge School muddies the result. Happily, the fine precision of the choir’s ensemble cuts through the sound to make it a powerful introduction to the collection.

Written in 1889, early in Parry’s career, it was dedicated to Stanford, who is here represented by one of his most elaborate settings of the Evensong canticle, the Magnificat for double choir. The Vasari Singers relish the complexities and go on to the much simpler and more direct choral setting of Stainer in the anthem I saw the Lord, dating from much earlier, 1856.

EW Naylor (1867-1934) is the least-known of the composers represented, yet his 1911 anthem Vox dicentis is among the most striking of those here with its dramatic and extreme dynamic contrasts, beautifully realised. That leads to the most distinctive item of all, Walton’s anthem The Twelve, set to words expressly written by WH Auden, like Walton associated with Christ Church, Oxford. It is not an easy sequence to hold together but Backhouse does wonders in achieving what he describes as “Belshazzars’ Feast in miniature” with choral writing just as memorable in jazzy syncopations.

Holst’s setting of the second Evensong canticle the Nunc Dimittis was discovered among the composer’s papers long after his death and is one of the most beautiful items here, leading to Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice, written in 1946 in the aftermath of the Second World War. Commissioned by Walter Hussey for St Matthew’s, Northampton, it sets a text by Richard Crashaw based on a passage from St Thomas Aquinas and ends with a sublime setting of the Amen, a fitting conclusion to this very satisfying selection of anthems, essential listening for anyone fond of Anglican church music.

Edward Greenfield