“…the overall choral tone so perfectly blended and exquisitely balanced that it quite takes the breath away.”
“This disc makes an excellent introduction to this kind of music.”
Em Marshall, MusicWeb International
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Organist: John Keys
- Soloist: Andrew Angus (Baritone)
Released by EMI, 1996. Re-issued 1998
20th Century Choral Music
An excellent introduction to this kind of music
Classics for Pleasure presents a good compilation of sacred contemporary choral works, with pieces by Pärt, Tavener, Alan Ridout and Gorecki. The combination of music works well, as all pieces inhabit the same sound-world, drawing on early music, especially plainchant and Orthodox traditions, and include an element of contemplative, meditative calm, where the focus is on the words, and allowing these to shine through the relative simplicity of the musical setting.
The disc opens with Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer whose music has been deeply immersed in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and whose characteristic and haunting tintinnabuli style – which all of the pieces featured here portray – was adopted in the late 1970s. Summa, which commences the disc, has been arranged for various combinations of instruments by the composer, but the original 1977 version, as here, is a setting of the Creed. It is followed by The Lamb, one of Tavener’s best known and loved works, setting a poem from William Blake’s mystical Songs of Innocence.
Pärt’s The Beatitudes was composed in 1990 and revised the following year, and is an English setting of text from St Matthew’s Gospel for chorus (or four soloists), and organ. This is one of the great treasures of contemporary church music, with its wonderful spaciousness, revelatory and timeless air; the masterful built-up and subsequent incredible release of tension through the cascading organ. This was the only work on the disc with which I was mildly disappointed – I felt it was slightly lacklustre, and could have started off with a greater sense of tension, leading to a bigger climax and a release both more intense and controlled at the same time.
Tavener’s Funeral Ikos sets words from the Greek funeral sentences for the burial of priests, and is followed by Ridout’s Litany. Alan Ridout studied at the Royal College of Music under Gordon Jacob and Herbert Howells, as well as with Tippett and Peter Racine Fricker, and was a prolific composer who produced a wide range of works from church music through to operas and symphonies. The Litany is dedicated to the memory of his mother and sets the traditional prayer of supplication. It starts off slightly starkly but grows into a beautifully revelatory work. I found the – rather breathy – bass not entirely convincing, but this lovely work is otherwise well-performed here.
Tavener’s ensuing Two Hymns to the Mother of God were also written in memory of the composer’s own mother. The first sets texts from the Liturgy of St Basil, and the second is from the Vigil Service of the Dormition of the Mother of God, while Pärt’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, composed in 1988 and, like the Beatitudes, revised in 1991, is a German setting of the seven ‘O’ Antiphons, one of which is sung each day for seven days before Christmas Eve. Again, expressive and convincing performances of these.
The penultimate work on the disc, Tavener’s Collegium Regale setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, was commissioned by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, and weaves together elements of Orthodox and Anglican traditions, combining two of the main aspects of the disc in a fascinating amalgamation.
The disc ends quietly with Gorecki’s Totus tuus. Like Arvo Pärt, Gorecki was more avant-garde in his earlier years, but in the 1970s his love of the folk culture of his native Poland and Roman Catholic Church won through, and became a prominent feature of his music. Totus tuus was composed to mark Pope John Paul’s third pilgrimage to Poland in 1987, and was first performed in Warsaw as part of the celebration of High Mass led by the Pope.
The performance of the Vasari Singers, under their director, Jeremy Backhouse, is of a consistently high standard throughout the disc – responsive, sensitive and well-paced – an important factor in these works that are so much about spaciousness and reflection. They are not, perhaps, quite as radiant as they could be, but are all well, if not spectacularly, sung. This disc makes an excellent introduction to this kind of music.
“The Vasari Singers, under their perceptive conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, are a group of the very highest calibre, but they excel even themselves here. The sound is pure, the soprano line often floating etherially above immaculately measured harmonies. …the overall choral tone so perfectly blended and exquisitely balanced that it quite takes the breath away.”
After the success of Ikos, King’s College Cambridge’s Christmas 1994 release, other choirs are cashing in – both these discs were recorded two months later, and both have at least three works in common with it. The King’s Singers use the now familiar repertoire as a sweetener for the premiere recordings of a couple of works commissioned for them, by Richard Rodney Bennett and Geoffrey Poole, which together fill more than half the disc. Whereas their slick, oh-so-smooth sound feels at odds with the timeless nature of Górecki’s Totus tuus or Tavener’s Funeral Ikos, the two commissioned works, though rather dominated by their texts – medieval poetry for Poole and vast chunks of Donne’s philosophical prose for Bennett – give them a better opportunity to display their incredible vocal agility. The Vasari Singers, like King’s College before them, mix Pärt with Górecki and Tavener, and perform them with depth and sensitivity. Having women’s, rather than men’s voices on the top line gives the disc a clearer, more radiant sound than that of the King’s Singers, and the Vasari’s director Jeremy Backhouse makes the most of this quality in very slow, sustained endings to pieces like Tavener’s The Lamb. The recorded sound is pleasing, if sometimes a little distant.