Album Review

Posted: Friday 10th September 2021
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Heaven Full of Stars – MusicWeb International


Although I’d admired a number of their recordings already, it was the Vasari Singers 2005 album Anthems for the 21st Century which really made me sit up and take notice of this ensemble (review). That CD was remarkable not just because all twelve of the pieces on the programme were receiving their first recordings but also no fewer than nine of them had been commissioned to celebrate the choir’s 25th anniversary. A tenth commission, Francis Pott’s remarkable The Cloud of Unknowing vastly outgrew its originally planned dimensions; that arresting ninety-minute score was finished in 2006 and was subsequently recorded by the Vasari Singers (review). Now – can it really be 15 years later? – here’s a new album to mark the 40th anniversary of the Vasari Singers.

Anthems for the 21st Century proudly proclaimed the choir’s commitment to commissioning, performing and recording high-quality contemporary choral music. Although they by no means neglect standard repertoire, such as the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil (review) and the Brahms Requiem (review) they’ve continued bravely to champion music by the likes of Gabriel Jackson (review) and Jonathan Rathbone (review). So, it comes as no surprise that they mark their 40th anniversary with a disc of music by fourteen composers, all but one of whom are still living, the sole exception being Patrick Gowers, who died in 2014. Quite a number of the pieces have connections with stars; hence the title of the album. Most of the featured composers are British but there are also contributions from the American, Eric Whitacre and the Latvians, Rihards Dubra and Ēriks Ešenvalds.

The Latvian compositions are choice examples of the wonderful choral music, by a number of composers from the Baltic countries, that has come to prominence in the last few decades. Dubra’s O crux ave is a little gem and it’s beautifully sung here. Ešenvalds’ music is more widely known than Dubra’s – though that’s a bit unfair on Dubra – and the two pieces selected by Jeremy Backhouse demonstrate why Ešenvalds’ pieces have become so popular with expert choirs and with audiences. Stars is a magical evocation of the immensity of the night sky, and the mysterious sound made by several choir members playing tuned wine glasses adds discreetly but tellingly to the atmosphere. O salutaris hostia is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary choral music and I was delighted to find this gorgeous anthem included here. It receives a lovely performance and the two crucial soprano solo roles are sung with great purity by Jocelyn Somerville and Susan Watson, their voices soaring like birds flying freely.

Arguably the most arresting piece on the programme is Patrick Gowers’ dramatic Ascensiontide piece, Viri Galilæi. How marvellously Gowers depicts the Ascension scene, beginning with quiet, awestruck music which gradually grows in volume and fervour until the hymn ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’ bursts out of the texture, bedecked with choral alleluias and organ flourishes. That’s a thrilling moment and Gowers sustains the excitement throughout the verse of the hymn; only at the end does the subdued music of the opening return in a brief coda. The Vasari Singers do justice to this superb piece.

Though I’ve admired a lot of Cecilia McDowall’s music, I don’t believe I’ve previously encountered Aurea luce. I’m glad to have heard it now because it’s a typically imaginative response to the words McDowall has selected and the piece is expertly written for voices. Even though the music doesn’t often raise its voice, the setting is full of energy. Paul Mealor’s Ave maris stella is another excellent choice. Julia Ridout justly observes in her notes that “while the piece does reach fff, it nevertheless retains a sense of peaceful calm”. I liked the devotional ambience of this slow-moving music.

The individual pieces have been shrewdly positioned on the disc so that very often the listener gets a contrast between lively and thoughtful pieces. As an example, John Rutter’s For the beauty of the earth is intelligently sandwiched between the more reflective items by Will Todd and Paul Mealor. As a significant contributor to the recent choral repertoire, Rutter wins his place here by right and I can understand why one of his up-beat pieces was chosen. That said, this particular piece, though understandably popular, is not one of his best offerings, I think. It’s a bit too commercial and easy for my taste – and I speak as an admirer of Rutter. But it gets a fresh, sprightly performance.

Arguably, Bob Chilcott is the successor to John Rutter when it comes to expertly crafted music that is loved by singers and audiences alike. The inclusion of his four Salisbury Motets is an interesting choice. It’s also logical since Jeremy Backhouse was one of the two conductors who directed the premiere of Salisbury Vespers, the large-scale work from which these motets are extracted. Salisbury Vespers is a concert work based on the service of Vespers and the full score calls for a large chorus, children’s choir, chamber choir and orchestra. The four motets are to be sung by the chamber choir and they’re placed at strategic points in the full score, but can be successfully extracted, as here, for independent performance. Three of the motets are Marian. The exception is the third one, ‘Lovely tear of lovely eye’, a medieval text meditating on the crucified Christ. This is the longest of the set and it also contains, I believe, the most interesting music. For this piece the choir is joined by a solo cello, here expertly played by Muriel Daniels. The cello part increases even further the melancholy of the music. All four motets are good pieces and they’re very well sung here. This is their second recording, I believe, though Salisbury Vespers as a whole remains unrecorded to the best of my knowledge.

The Vasari Singers make a fine job of Eric Whitacre’s rapt Lux Aurumque; the intense harmonies are expertly rendered. The choir has a long association with the music of Gabriel Jackson and their familiarity with his style is evident in a super account of Creator of the stars of night. This is an excellent example of this composer’s gift for luminous choral textures. Much of the piece is subdued but the brief outburst of loud, ecstatic choral writing accompanied by dancing organ figurations is, in the overall context of the piece, a real coup, after which the piece subsides to a tranquil conclusion.

Jeremy Backhouse indicates, in an introductory booklet note, that the programme that is offered here was selected after the original long list had been whittled down: they could have filled two discs. As it is, we have a generous running time but it would be nice if a way could be found to record the pieces that didn’t quite make the cut. However, the final selection is discerning; each piece on the programme more than justifies its inclusion, even if I haven’t mentioned every item. Without exception, the performances are excellent. The choir is well-disciplined and very committed and their sound is well blended and admirably focused. Though the membership of the Vasari Singers has, no doubt, changed over the last 40 years one constant has been their founder conductor, Jeremy Backhouse. The very high standard of the singing on this disc is a tribute to his expert training and incisive conducting. I must not overlook either the contributions to several pieces of organist Martin Ford. He has a number of demanding pieces to play, not least the Patrick Gowers score, and his playing is unfailingly excellent.

The recording was made in the Vasari Singers’ usual venue, the Chapel of Tonbridge School. Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Dave Rowell have ensured that the performances have been preserved in excellent sound. Julia Ridout’s notes provide an excellent introduction to the music.

I think I’m right in saying that back in the spring of 1980 the founder members of the Vasari Singers were members of the London Symphony Chorus, keen to sing smaller-scale music as well. At that stage they probably had no expectation that the choir would still be around forty years later, but that’s what happened and this disc is a fine celebration of the choir’s first four decades. I hope the Vasari Singers will continue to flourish for many years to come, and in particular that they’ll continue to champion the music of today’s composers.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International