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Sanctum est Verum Lumen - Multi-part Music for Choir
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Sanctum est verum lumen (2005) [10:49]
Robert WYLKYNSON (c.1450–c.1515)
Jesus autem transiens/Credo in Deum [5:10]
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599)
Duo Seraphim [3:33]
Josquin des PREZ (attrib.) (c.1450–1521)
Qui habitat [5:11]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Magnificat sexti toni [7:53]
Tarik O’REGAN (b. 1978)
I sleep, but my heart waketh (2006) [8:01]
Felice ANERIO (c.1560–1614)
Stabat Mater [9:19]
Johannes OCKEGHEM (attrib.) (c.1410–1497)
Deo gratia a 36 [3:42]
Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948)
In nomine (1999) [6:35]
Thomas TALLIS (1505–1585)
Spem in alium (1567) [10:01]
National Youth Choir of Great Britain/Mike Brewer
rec. 17 September 2006, 12-13 April 2007, St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn; 4-5 August 2007, 8 April, Chapel of Merton College Oxford. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34045 [70:21]
Experience Classicsonline

Founded in 1983 and conducted ever since then by Mike Brewer, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain consists of 140 singers, aged between 16 and 22. Though it doesn’t say specifically in the booklet that the release of this disc celebrates the choir’s twenty-fifth anniversary, this sumptuous CD is the best possible way to mark that milestone.
The programme has been intelligently devised to showcase the choir in several examples of multi-part polyphony and the three modern equivalent pieces complement the older music superbly. The music, therefore, is on an elaborate scale, even if the longest piece only lasts for just under eleven minutes.
We are accustomed these days to hearing polyphonic music sung by small expert chamber choirs, often one to a part. But just as it would be a pity if the orchestral music of, say, Haydn or Mozart were to disappear from the repertoire of modern symphony orchestras, so this recital proves conclusively that a well-balanced and well prepared large choir can still be completely effective in polyphonic music. Indeed, the very size of the choir adds significantly to the effect produced by much of the music.
The pieces are all remarkable in their different ways. In his exceptionally interesting booklet note composer Gabriel Jackson describes the piece by Robert Wylkynson as “a simple 13-part round”. What a masterly understatement! The texture is hugely rich and complex. Wylkynson adds each of his thirteen voices in turn and then takes them away again so that the piece describes a kind of arch form, building up and then back down again, until eventually it unravels into the single strand with which it began. I don’t know if all 140 singers were used for this piece – which would mean about 11 singers to a part – but it sounds as if they were and at it’s height the piece seems like the musical equivalent of a beehive. It’s a real tour de force and I would imagine it requires huge concentration on the part of the performers. Here the effect is simply stunning.
The Josquin piece is written in a “mere” twenty-four parts – four 6-voiced canons. Like the Wylkynson this is another teeming choral tapestry. The music makes much use of repetitive patterns but far from that being a limitation the technique invests the music with life and energy. The young singers surmount its challenges superbly. They’re just as successful in the Ockeghem piece, which consists of nine overlapping canons, Gabriel Jackson tells us. That sounds quite simple but the piece is like an aural kaleidoscope and makes a thrilling and intricate effect.
Amidst all this glorious polyphony how do the modern pieces fit in? Well, in a word, they fit in wonderfully. Bo Holten’s piece is very directly related to Tudor polyphony. He wrote it in 1999 for the 75th anniversary of the BBC Singers, whose Chief Guest Conductor he was at the time. The piece is cast in twenty-four parts and is inspired by John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas. A solo quartet sings material from the Benedictus of that Mass setting while the remaining twenty vocal parts weave complex textures derived from that material. Gabriel Jackson felicitously describes Holten’s music as being “suffused with a gentle luminosity: quiet, static and ecstatic.” For the most part that’s true but there’s a radiant burst of sound at the word “Sanctus” (4:19) which is the aural equivalent of blinding light. This is an absolutely fascinating piece, superbly performed, which is, in Jackson’s words, “a kind of dream of the sixteenth century refracted through the lens of a late 20th-century sensibility and technique.”
Tarik O’Regan’s piece is not so overtly inspired by sixteenth-century polyphony. Indeed, to hear it you’d think it owes far more to the school of American minimalism. It was commissioned by the National Youth Choir and it’s a setting of words from the Old Testament Song of Solomon. In the context of the rest of this programme it’s quite modest, being cast in only eight parts, but it sounds infinitely more complex.  In fact, to quote Gabriel Jackson again, it’s  “a mosaic of polychoral effusions and tributes.” Though clearly indebted in part to minimalism I think it was an inspired piece of programme planning to juxtapose it with works such as those by Wylkynson, Josquin and Ockeghem. By so doing Mike Brewer demonstrates clearly just how “modern” some of those old masters were and also the lineage of music when contemporary composers are sensitive to tradition, building on it and renewing it through their own work.  I suspect – I haven’t seen a score – that O’Regan’s musical material is relatively modest in dimensions yet he weaves it into an intricate whole – a case of multum in parvo. I’ve previously expressed my admiration for pieces by him that I’ve heard and this is another intriguing and effective composition, which is expertly performed so far as I can judge.
The third contemporary piece is by Gabriel Jackson himself and its placement at the head of the programme is highly significant since his piece is a conscious homage to Tallis’s great forty-part motet with which the recital concludes. So, like his Tudor exemplar, Jackson scores his piece for eight 5-part choirs and, as he explains in his notes, there are further parallels. The piece begins arrestingly and then unfolds as a superb exploration of the possibilities afforded by multi-layered choral textures and also by the exploitation of the physical performance space and the resonance of suitable acoustics. Jackson states that he wanted to write a piece “that was essentially about light.” If I may say so, the result is a luminous success. I’ve heard a number of Jackson’s choral works in the last couple of years and I’ve been greatly impressed by them but this piece strikes me as the finest example of his work that I’ve heard to date.
And so to Spem in Alium, which one might almost call the fons et origo of this whole programme. I mean no disrespect to the marvellous music that precedes it on this disc when I say that one senses that everything has been leading up to this pinnacle. Of course, it’s one of the towering achievements of Tudor polyphony, indeed of all polyphony, and Brewer’s young singers seem to be inspired by it to give of their very best. They give a wonderful account of it. The purity of the top soprano lines is especially arresting. In performance the piece can often come across just as a wall of sound. That doesn’t happen here, thanks to the grip that Brewer has on the score. I admire greatly the clarity he brings to the performance and especially I like the way he ensures that in passages such as that between 3:07 and 4:48, where Tallis thins out the textures, the singers observe this accurately, thereby achieving some superb contrasts. The engineers play their part too, reporting the separate choirs splendidly. Quite simply, this is one of the finest accounts of Spem in Alium that I’ve encountered on disc and it crowns this recital as, surely, it was meant to.
Everything about this disc is of the highest quality. The standard of performance is superb, as is the recorded sound. Gabriel Jackson’s notes are exemplary and the music is quite wonderful. This magnificent CD ravishes and stimulates the ear in equal measure. Bravo!
John Quinn


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