Album Review

Posted: Thursday 9th June 2011
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Great British Anthems – MusicWeb International (2nd Opinion)

This programme includes some of the most glorious anthems in the English church repertoire. It opens with Parry’s magnificent Milton setting – in my humble opinion, one of the finest of all English anthems. Organist Jeremy Filsell plays a key role in the success of this performance and I was pleased to note how properly attentive he is to Parry’s dynamic markings. So, for example, the very opening is loud, as it should be, but by bar 7 Filsell has reduced the volume significantly, as Parry requires. I admired also the way in which he brings out so much of the detail in Parry’s writing – notice the little subsidiary figures in bars 10 and 12, for instance.

Broadly, Jeremy Backhouse ensures that the performance follows the composer’s directions, though I was a little disappointed that he doesn’t appear to move the pace forward when the choir goes back into eight parts at “To live with Him” (8:58). I see that my colleague, Kevin Sutton, was troubled by an excessively bright-toned tenor in this piece (review). I agree that the first tenor part does come through at times, though I didn’t find this happened to such an extent that it marred my enjoyment. What I did feel, however, was that the alto lines and, even more so, the bass parts, didn’t register quite as strongly as I would have expected. In this piece Parry’s part-writing for all the voices is wonderful but both the first tenors and first sopranos spend a lot of time in their upper ranges. I wonder if the problem in this performance is that the lower parts – alto and bass – are a little under strength numerically? I don’t know how many singers were involved in this recording but the rather distant booklet photograph suggests a choir of between thirty and, at most, forty voices and for much of the work Parry writes in eight parts.

Both in the Parry and in the Stanford Magnificat that follows – and which is also in eight parts – the choral sound is often quite bright. I think both composers gave their sopranos and tenors prominent lines but did so in the expectation that the choir would be evenly balanced. For whatever reason it doesn’t seem to me that the lower voices in the Vasari Singers register quite sufficiently in these two pieces though, oddly, I found the remaining works in the programme were satisfactorily balanced. Overall, I enjoyed both the Parry and Stanford’s fine a cappella Magnificat very much. In the latter I liked the energy that the singers bring to the more extrovert passages, such as the opening and ‘Fecit potentiam’, but I also admired the way in which the several more reflective stretches of music were shaped.

Stainer’s anthem is no masterpiece – it’s music of its time – but both choir and organist are appropriately assertive at the start – and the choral bass line is more satisfyingly in evidence. Later on, the lyrical section (“O Trinity, O unity”) is launched beautifully by the sopranos and the other sections follow their lead as they join in one after the other. The anthem by Edward Woodall Naylor – why didn’t Naxos give his full name? – offers some dramatic opportunities, which the performers grasp. However, I particularly admired the way in which Naylor’s use of contrast is brought out in this performance. The lovely final pages feature a delicate soprano solo and, at the very end, a pleasing light tenor soloist makes his mark.

Unfortunately Naxos don’t supply any texts – these are available from their website, but that’s not the same as having them readily accessible in the booklet. This is a particular handicap in the Naylor and Finzi pieces, both of which have unfamiliar words, the former in Latin. It’s even more of a handicap in the case of Walton’s The Twelve, ‘An anthem for the Feast of any Apostle’, since the text is a complex one by W.H. Auden, which one really needs to follow. In his note, Jeremy Backhouse suggests, quite fairly, that the piece might be regarded as a mini-Belshazzar’s Feast. I know what he means. The men deliver the opening declamation powerfully and the whole first section, which has several dramatic moments, is well done by the choir. Here, and throughout the work, Jeremy Filsell gives a marvellous account of the demanding and vital organ part. The reflective central section (between 4:43 and 7:33) features excellent contributions from two soprano soloists.

The programme starts with a masterpiece and closes with another in the shape of Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice. The mysterious opening is rendered with the utmost sensitivity by Jeremy Filsell. For me, this organ introduction seems to conjure a vision of a church interior illuminated by shafts of afternoon sunshine, perhaps cutting through traces of incense lingering from an earlier service. That’s just what is achieved here before the choir’s first hushed entry. The piece is very complex with many changes of tempo and metre. In a successful performance all these changes should be achieved seamlessly, so that the listener can concentrate on the beauties of Finzi’s harmonies and melodic lines and on Richard Crashaw’s synthesis of words by Aquinas. Judged by that criterion, this is a successful performance. It’s also successful in terms of the excellence of the singing and playing and once again Jeremy Backhouse ensures that his performers obey the composer’s instructions. A good pair of soloists, tenor and baritone, deliver the duet “O soft, self-wounding Pelican” very sensitively (10:23) and the final, seraphic 8-part Amen (from 14:36) is beautifully achieved.

The music on this disc represents the English church music tradition at its finest and the performances are admirable. I have not spotted the Vasari Singers in the Naxos catalogue before now so perhaps this release marks the start of a new partnership between this very proficient choir and one of the most enterprising labels around. We must hope so. In particular, it would be very good news if Naxos were to expand further their already excellent support for recent British choral music by inviting the Vasaris to record the Requiem for unaccompanied choir by Gabriel Jackson, which they commissioned and first performed a couple of years ago. I’ve not heard that piece yet but the other choral music by Jackson that I’ve heard to date makes me think it could be a significant addition to the CD catalogue.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International