- Run Time: 81.33
- Release Date: 2020
- Label: Naxos
- ASIN: B08FP7LHSG
Heaven full of Stars
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- Stars Ešenvalds4:46
- Seek him that maketh the seven stars Dove6:31
- O Salutaris hostia Ešenvalds3:31
- Viri Galilaei Gowers7:54
- Ave Maria Stopford3:59
- Aurea Luce McDowall5:57
- O crux ave Dubra2:19
- Deus est caritas Panufnik4:10
- Christ is the morning star Todd5:03
- For the beauty of the earth Rutter4:04
- Ave maris stella Mealor4:05
- Like to the falling of a star Weir3:18
- Lux Aurumque Whitacre3:22
- Creator of the stars of night Jackson4:33
- Salisbury Motets No. 1 – I sing of a mayden Chilcott16:41
- Salisbury Motets No. 2 – When to the temple Mary went Chilcott
- Salisbury Motets No. 3 – Lovely tear of lovely eye Chilcott
- Salisbury Motets No. 4 – Hail, star of the sea most radiant Chilcott
Contemporary sacred choral music has been central to the repertoire of Vasari Singers throughout its existence, and to mark its 40th anniversary it has selected a sequence of anthems, mostly with starbased themes, the vast majority of which are by living composers. The rich variety to be heard reflects the choirs commitment to the genre, whether in the ecstasy of riks Eenvalds, the serenity of Jonathan Dove, the shimmering harmonies of Eric Whitacre, or the ethereal beauties of Paul Mealor.
- Heaven Full of Stars – Gramophone - "...the group has a light, youthful sound that lends itself well to pieces designed to glow, to radiate, to shimmer."
Over 40 years the Vasari Singers and founder-conductor Jeremy Backhouse have built up an impressive reputation and catalogue, with recordings spanning a wide range of repertoire but specialising in 20th- and 21st-century works. Now they mark their anniversary year with a collection of contemporary anthems – star-themed, as seems only appropriate.
One of the UK’s best amateur chamber choirs, the group has a light, youthful sound that lends itself well to pieces designed to glow, to radiate, to shimmer. The upper voices match the unearthly gleam of the water-filled wine glasses in Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Stars, with the choir finding a brighter intensity for Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars and a more muted, covered luminosity for Rihards Dubra’s O crux ave and the supporting accompaniment to the two soaring soloists in Ešenvalds’s O salutaris hostia.
There are some interesting lesser-known anthems here. Cecilia McDowall’s Aurea luce is a slow-grower – an exercise in shifting waves of texture, pinpricks of flickering light in the organ pulsing underneath sustained chords, Judith Weir’s Like to the falling of a star brings a welcome hit of rhythm to a programme dominated by meditative stillness, and ‘Lovely tear from lovely eye’ from Bob Chilcott’s Salisbury Motets introduces a solo cello (beautifully played by Muriel Daniels) in a welcome extension and amplification of the set’s richness.
There’s variety here, but it’s all in the detail. And there’s only so much gilded affirmation you can enjoy without wanting a bit of palate-cleaning coolness, the tang of dissonance. You get hints of it in sections of the Dove and Gowers’s Viri Galilaei, but not quite enough to get a fully rounded picture of a group that are so much more than just good soft-focus, generously sugared singers.
- Heaven Full of Stars – Classical Music Sentinel - "If you admire and enjoy higher-calibre choral music, don't hesitate to obtain this superlative collection."
As soon as I noticed that the name of Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds was listed on this CD, I knew I just had to drop everything and listen. This recording was released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Vasari Singers and their director Jeremy Backhouse, and it’s chock-full of what this choir does best: contemporary choral music, most of it written by living composers. But fear not, there is absolutely nothing so far out in left field on this recording that will give you the urge to skip to the next track. All the pieces are diverse and yet all share rich harmonic textures, uplifting dynamic swings, and best of all they, like the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds, transcend the here and now, and awaken distant memories of your childhood, sitting in church and hearing what you thought were heavenly voices.
Many of the previous recordings by the Vasari Singers on various high profile labels like EMI, Guild, Signum Classics and Naxos, have been highly acclaimed by both critics and the public alike. Obviously many of the original members have come and gone, but for a choir of 28 singers or so, their blend is exceptional and their dynamic control is flawless (the end of Stars for example is spellbinding), thanks to the experienced leadership of Jeremy Backhouse who, since 1980 has been a strong advocate for new choral music. And let’s not forget the excellent support they all get from organist Martin Ford.
If you admire and enjoy higher-calibre choral music, don’t hesitate to obtain this superlative collection. Now the hardest part of this review for me is to choose which audio clip to include since they are all equally outstanding, so I guess I will have to include two this time around. The first is from O salutaris hostia and the second one is from the Salisbury Motets. Enjoy!
Classical Music Sentinel
- Heaven Full of Stars – MusicWeb International - "...this disc is a great showcase for the Vasari Singers. They certainly are an outstanding ensemble..."
One of the most striking things about this CD – before you ever get to the music – is that out of the fourteen composers represented, all but one are still alive, with the two youngest, Philip Stopford and Ēriks Ešenvalds, born in 1977. That fact is an impressive indication of the Vasari Singers’ commitment to and belief in contemporary choral music. Don’t be put off by that ‘c’ word – ‘contemporary’ – because conductor Jeremy Backhouse chooses the repertoire with immense care, so that it is pleasing both to sing and to listen to.
As Backhouse mentions in his note, the music is predominantly British, with the addition of three Latvian pieces and one American. Those by the Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds are some of the most striking on the disc. The sound of tuned wine glasses creates a halo for the voices in ‘Stars’, a setting of an exquisite poem by Sara Teasdale. His other number, O salutaris hostia, has become increasingly popular with chamber choirs; provided, that is, they possess very high soprano voices like those of Jocelyn Somerville and Susan Waton, who sing beautifully here.
In between those comes Jonathan Dove’s evocative ‘Seek him that maketh the seven stars’, with its twinkling organ part. The Vasaris rise to the challenge of the spectacular vocal writing, as they do in Patrick Gowers wonderful Viri Galilæi, a visionary piece, with another highly effective organ part, though this time shimmering rather than twinkling. This anthem’s text deals with Christ’s ascension to heaven witnessed on the road to Galilee, and develops from a hushed opening to a grand hymn of praise. Gowers, who died in 2014, was an immensely gifted composer, and probably best known for his TV and film music, such as ‘Whoops Apocalypse’ and ‘A Bigger Splash’; but he wrote also a great deal of sacred and concert music, and this work, originally composed for the consecration of Richard Harries as bishop of Oxford, is one of the most striking on the CD.
Perhaps inevitably, those ‘twinkling’ organ parts do become a bit of a hallmark of this disc, and Cecilia McDowall’s fine anthem Aurea luce has another such. It does give me the opportunity, however, to acknowledge the excellent contribution of organist Martin Ford, who plays on the majority of the tracks.
Philip Stopford’s Ave Maria has a welcome feature – a truly glorious melody! This is pure catnip to all choristers, and Stopford is content to allow his tune to be shared democratically amongst the choral parts. This is unfussy but hugely effective writing for choir, and balm to the ear. Such simplicity and directness is also a characteristic of the tiny anthem that comes next, one by another Latvian composer, Rihards Dubra. O crux ave is slow moving, homophonic and touchingly lovely. This is the shortest track of all, but is among the most memorable.
The most familiar number here will be Rutter’s For the beauty of the earth, with its staccato organ accompaniment, so typical of its composer. To their immense credit, the Vasaris manage to sing it as if they’d never done so before, no mean task. Judith Weir’s Like to the falling of a star is a refreshing and delightful song. It sets very straightforwardly – but cunningly – a 17th century poem by Henry King (Bishop of Winchester). It contrasts sharply with the static, luminous sounds of the next track, Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque.
The calm phrases of Gabriel Jackson’s Creator of the stars of night, another evocative and ultimately exultant piece, lead to the final items, four of Bob Chilcott’s Salisbury Motets. These are now becoming well-known to choirs in this country and abroad; the longest and, for me, the most beautiful, Lovely tear of lovely eye, is enhanced by the ‘cello playing of Muriel Daniels. Chilcott is steeped in the British choral tradition, and also has a true gift for melody. These motets make a fine conclusion to the CD.
Apart from its purely musical qualities, this disc is a great showcase for the Vasari Singers. They certainly are an outstanding ensemble, even if the men are not quite the equal of the sopranos and altos, with a touch of hardness sometimes entering their sound. This is a tough one for choirs and their conductors; high on the agenda, inevitably, is to try for perfection of blend, with no individual voices standing out. The Vasaris accomplish that to a remarkable degree, but with occasionally that slight price to pay.
The Naxos recording is one of their best, and captures so well these superbly curated and delivered performances.
- Heaven Full of Stars – Opera Today - "The release amply confirms the strapline ‘Variety, Versatility and Virtuosity’ displayed on the choir’s website."
With this 40th-anniversary disc celebrating four decades since its formation by the still-current director Jeremy Backhouse, Vasari Singers is now officially middle-aged. But with this twenty-eighth CD, there’s no sign here of a choir resting on its laurels and it demonstrates, once again, that the group takes everything comfortably in its stride. The release also amply confirms the strapline ‘Variety, Versatility and Virtuosity’ displayed on the choir’s website.
Rather than provide a best-of compilation spanning forty years of the Choir’s existence, Vasari has chosen a themed programme related to stars, with music drawn from (mostly) living British composers and two representatives from Latvia. It’s an idea that works well enough even if not all the selections belong to this celestial framework. But, as Backhouse comments in his prefatory note, ‘we loved some anthems so much we couldn’t bear not to let them feature’. With this approach, some of the music (all very approachable and undemanding on the ear) may imprint itself more in the minds of the singers than the listener. That said, all the composers write sympathetically for the voice without over-taxing an amateur choir’s capabilities.
Given Vasari has a solid reputation for commissioning new work, it comes as a surprise to note the absence of any fresh material. One might have anticipated something special to mark this significant anniversary. The lack of any new offering aside, there’s plenty to enjoy here and among the fifteen works there are a handful of standout pieces which have already become firmly established in the repertoire of chamber and cathedral choirs such as Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque and Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seen stars. While most, if not all the featured composers are recognisable figures (the work of Latvian Rihards Dubra may be unfamiliar to some) there are several works new to me. Those that I returned to with growing interest include Will Todd’s well-crafted Christ is the morning star, Judith Weir’sattractive Like to the Falling of a Star (the second of Two Human Hymns) and Bob Chilcott’s Salisbury Motets.
This last group of four pieces are derived from Chilcott’s substantial Salisbury Vespers (2009) setting Marian texts related to Christmas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and Passiontide, while the last is a song of praise to Mary. Those with a sweet tooth (musically speaking) will love the Salisbury Motets; beginning withthe rapt ‘I Sing of a Mayden’, Chilcott’s melodic gifts are readily apparent. More emotional depth informs ‘When to the Temple Mary Went’ and there’s a welcome bite to the more energetic ‘Hail, Star of the Sea Most Radiant’. But it is left to ‘Lovely Tear of Lovely Eye’ to make the most memorable impression, much helped by the heart-easing beauty of Muriel Daniels’ cello.
Stars also feature in the eponymous opening track by Ēriks Ešenvalds whose atmospheric setting (with tuned wine glasses) of musings on the night sky by the American poet Sara Teasdale is ecstatically evoked by the choir. Two sopranos from Vasari bring lustre to Ešenvalds’ O Salutaris, their pure toned duetting perfectly judged. Gabriel Jackson’s Creator of the stars of night is by turns ethereal and thrilling, yet Paul Mealor’s largely gentle Ave maris stella gives the impression of an expansive introduction belonging to something that never quite arrives. Elsewhere, Dubra’s Passiontide O crux ave feels rather limp between Cecilia McDowall’s more animated Aurea luce and Roxanna Panufnik’s quirky Deus et caritas. No matter how accomplished these three pieces maybe, they form a somewhat bland collection which, coming immediately after Philip Stopford’s sugar-coated Ave Maria, suggests one too many works which lull the senses.
On the plus side there’s Patrick Gowers’ powerfully effective Ascension anthem Viri Galilei; its dramas convincingly unveiled in this stirring account by both the choir and organist Martin Ford. Equally persuasive is Dove’s glittering anthem Seek him that maketh the seen stars, setting a three-line biblical text with great vitality and resourcefulness. Perhaps it’s this last quality that points to an unevenness of compositional inspiration in an otherwise well-conceived programme admirably sung and directed by Backhouse with customary efficiency. Full texts, translations and booklet notes included.
- Heaven Full of Stars – MusicWeb International - "...this disc is a fine celebration of the choir’s first four decades."
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.