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Choirbook For The Queen
David BEDFORD (1937-2011)
May God Shield You On Every Step [6:06]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Corpus Christi Carol [3:59]
Diana BURRELL (b. 1948)
O Joyful Light [2:51]
Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Advent Calendar [6:26]
Michael FINNISSY (b. 1946)
Sincerity [3:43]
Alexander GOEHR (b. 1932)
Cities and Thrones and Powers [3:04]
Francis GRIER (b. 1955)
Prayer [5:18]
Nigel OSBORNE (b. 1948)
A Prayer and Two Blessings [7:47]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Joy at the Sound [4:28]
Julian PHILIPS (b. 1969)
Church Music [5:56]
David SAWER (b. 1961)
Wonder [4:09]
John TAVENER (b. 1944)
Take Him Earth For Cherishing [4:31]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
I my Best-Beloved’s am [6:44]
BBC Singers/Stephen Cleobury
Stephen Disley (organ)
rec. 22-23, January 2013, St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge, London. DDD
Texts included
PRIORY PRCD 1097 [66:32]

The Choirbook for The Queen is a remarkable project, conceived in 2003 to mark the then-forthcoming Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The men behind the idea were Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Robert Ponsonby, the former Controller of Music at the BBC. Ponsonby and Stephen Cleobury were eventually among the Trustees of the project. In essence, the idea was to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee by publishing a collection of anthems.
 
As explained in the booklet accompanying this CD these were planned “to represent the best church music being written in this country and was intended thereby to celebrate the present day ‘renaissance’ of choral music in the Church.” A conscious decision was made to include music not only by composers such as John Rutter who are closely associated with church music but also by several whose names are not normally associated with the genre. The Choirbook eventually encompassed 44 pieces of which eleven were specially commissioned. All the commissioned pieces are included here, the exceptions being the offerings by Rutter and John Tavener. The notes say that every anthem in the Choirbook was composed between 2002, the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and 2012. However, I’m not sure that’s quite right: for instance I believe that the Rutter piece was written and first performed in 1999.
 
I’ve been hoping for some time that at least some of the Choirbook pieces would be recorded and it’s fitting that Priory should have undertaken the project since this label has done so much valiant and important work over many years in recording the choirs of English churches and cathedrals in the repertoire that is their meat and drink.
 
So much for the background: what of the music? Inevitably there’s a wide variety of styles here and the various composers have all taken their own approach to these commissions - there’s absolutely no evidence of any kind of template. I was interested that only one composer has set an original text, expressly written for the purpose; that’s Roxanna Panufnik who asked Roger McGough to write a poem for what became her exuberant anthem, Joy at the Sound. Her fellow composers have mined a wide and rich variety of sources for their texts.
 
In the anonymous booklet note it is stated that the anthems in the Choirbook “are challenging but also satisfyingly within the capabilities of good amateur choirs as well as professionals.” I haven’t seen any scores but I do wonder how even good amateur choirs will fare with some of the pieces included on this disc. None of the anthems sounds particularly easy - thank goodness, there’s been no misguided ‘dumbing down’ - and I’m sure they’re all demanding to sing. Diana Burrell’s O Joyful Light, for example, is an a cappella piece which features bright, light choral textures - fittingly, given the words she has set. I think it’s a very good piece but I suspect many choirs will find the harmonies a challenge. There are also challenging harmonies, as well as complex part-writing, in Michael Finnissy’s Sincerity. The music of David Sawer’s Wonder also sounds complex. Interestingly, he’s set the same words by Thomas Traherne that Gerald Finzi used in the fourth movement of Dies Natalis. In a brief note Sawer refers to Traherne’s “poetry of childlike innocence” and while I admire his piece I wonder if Finzi’s setting doesn’t more accurately mirror the innocence of the words.
 
I was impressed by Judith Bingham’s Corpus Christi Carol. Like most of the composers she contributes a brief note about her piece in which she tells us that the music is a series of overlapping canons. That may be so but this technical accomplishment is no straitjacket and the listener may not even be aware of the compositional device, which is as it should be. The piece is imaginative and inventive and I found the delicate organ accompaniment very effective. David Bedford’s piece is most attractive and there’s much beautiful writing for voices in Nigel Osborne’s A Prayer and Two Blessings in which he mingles two African blessings with some words by Trevor Huddlestone. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has selected a poem by Rowan Williams, the recently-retired Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Williams’ words contain some potent imagery and ‘Max’ describes his music as “a simple but sometimes turbulent strophic setting.” Though modest in size the result is powerful.
 
The two pieces which were not commissioned for the Choirbook are those by John Tavener and John Rutter. I expected the Tavener piece to be a setting of the words that Herbert Howells set in his magnificent motet that bears the same title. However, though the complete poem is printed in the booklet Tavener has set only the first four lines. The scoring is for choir and echo choir, the latter directed to be placed at a distance and in a gallery. The distancing is well captured by engineer Neil Collier in this recording and Tavener’s piece, written in memory of his brother, is, like so much of his music, simple in style yet eloquent. I remember hearing the first performance of Rutter’s I my Best-Beloved’s am on Radio 3. It was part of a concert given by the BBC Singers in Canterbury Cathedral. The theme of the concert was the seven sacraments and Rutter was asked to write a piece about marriage. The result is a typically well-crafted and expressive piece for a cappella choir in which some words by an English poet, Francis Quarles (1592-1644) are combined most effectively with Latin nuptial responses.
 
As I indicated earlier, I do wonder how widely some of these pieces will be taken up except by cathedral and other expert choirs. However, that’s not to diminish in any way the importance of the Choirbook for The Queen project. It was a most imaginative way to mark the Diamond Jubilee and many of the new pieces here recorded enrich further the repertoire of English church music. These anthems could not be in better hands than those of the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury and Stephen Disley’s organ playing is as expert as the singing.
 
It was the right thing to record the new commissions - I presume that most, if not all of the anthems on this disc are recorded for the first time here. However, the Choirbook contains another thirty-one pieces, including offerings by Julian Anderson, Sally Beamish, Richard Rodney Bennett, John Casken, Bob Chilcott, Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, both Colin and David Matthews, Anthony Payne, Francis Pott, Giles Swayne, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir. Some of these thirty-one pieces may have been recorded already but it would be excellent if Priory could record all of them and so bring about a comprehensive recording of the contents of the Choirbook.
 
This is an important disc and I hope it will bring to a wider audience these significant new pieces of church music, all of them expertly performed here.
 
John Quinn

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