I’ve heard a number of examples of the sacred choral music of Matthew Martin on a variety of mixed-programme discs and the pieces that I’ve heard have impressed me. Now Daniel Hyde and the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford have put together a full disc of his music. It’s appropriate that they should have done this for Martin was an undergraduate student at the college and he has since returned there to teach.
I think it says a lot about how much in demand Matthew Martin is as a composer that most of the works here recorded were commissioned: people and organisations want
him to write music for them. The bulk of them come from what was clearly a particularly productive period between 2011 and 2013. Many of the pieces on this disc are receiving their first recordings here and to the best of my recollection I don’t think I’ve heard any of the music before.
Daniel Hyde has contributed an excellent booklet note and in the course of it he comments that much of Martin’s music “uses various contrapuntal devices as a starting point in order to achieve harmonic tension and release, rather than relying on atmospheric ‘chords’ for their own sake, as has perhaps become more fashionable in the choral music of this century.” I can think of one or two composers whose reliance on “atmospheric ‘chords’” Hyde might have had in mind and I think the point is well made. The contrapuntal nature of much of the music we hear on this disc doubtless accounts for the strong sense of momentum and purpose behind the music, even when it’s more subdued in nature.
On many occasions there’s also evidence a strong dramatic sense. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Festival Anthem: In the year that King Uzziah died
(I saw the Lord
). This piece won for Martin the prize in the Liturgical category of the 2013 British Composer Awards. It’s a terrific anthem, featuring some thrilling choral writing and a crucially important – and imposing – independent organ part. The text is from Isaiah and it’s a very dramatic episode in the Prophecy to which Martin responds with big, highly-charged music. Even when the music appears to become a little more relaxed during a passage for solo tenor, that’s only an appearance; the tension remains high. After all the power and excitement of the anthem the piece achieves a subdued ending which is as effective as it’s apt. Daniel Hyde and his choir give it a full-throated, exciting performance while Stephen Farr’s contribution at the organ console is simply thrilling.
Another impressively exciting offering is A Song of the New Jerusalem
. This is a slightly expanded version of the text set by some previous composers, such as Edgar Bainton, as And I saw a new Heaven.
It’s a setting of words from the Book of Revelation. The music is consistently dramatic, even in the quieter passages, and the use of dynamic contrasts is highly effective. Martin’s response to St. John’s visionary words is thrilling and he builds the music to an immense final climax with a huge contribution from the organ, after which the closing moments are quietly thoughtful.
The programme also begins and ends with exciting music. The Jubilate Deo
is vigorous and festive and Laudate Dominum
proves to be cut from the same cloth. Both are exuberant and feature music that has driving rhythmic energy at its core.
There are two Mass settings; each is a Missa Brevis, omitting a setting of the Creed. The Chester Missa Brevis
includes an important organ part. Composed in 2013, the setting is, Daniel Hyde tells us, Martin’s “tentative homage” to Britten in his centenary year. I can understand the modesty of a young composer following in the path that Britten had trodden with his own Missa Brevis – though that was for trebles only – however the music itself is anything but tentative. Hyde is right to describe it as having “a grand ‘big building’ feel to it.” It strikes me as a very effective setting, containing a good deal of arresting music. I especially admired the vivid Gloria and also the very imaginative Sanctus.
A Short Mass of St. Dominic
is for unaccompanied choir and is sung in English, using the new 2011 Roman Catholic translation. I’m afraid that I think this translation is deeply unsatisfactory; it’s far too verbose and frequently addresses the Almighty in an uncomfortably obsequious fashion. However, these particular texts from the Ordinary of the Mass have been left largely alone by the translators, thank goodness. Matthew Martin has composed a good, attractive setting which is also commendably concise. I wonder, however, how many Roman Catholic churches, apart from some cathedrals, any longer have choirs that will be capable of essaying the music. I hope I’m being unduly pessimistic for like all the other pieces on this programme this music deserves to be widely used by choirs.
Mention must also be made of two short pieces, both of which were written in response to the premature deaths of friends of the composer. Justorum animae
, the earliest composition in this collection, is for unaccompanied male voices. It’s a homophonic piece of beguiling surface simplicity but the music’s restraint simply adds to the eloquence of this beautiful little musical tribute. Dormi, Jesu!
has been set by several other composers, usually as a Christmas lullaby. That’s not the case here. Martin’s music is quite angular and the harmonic language is unsettled, all of which is rather at variance with our traditional view of the text. This is music that is far from untroubled.
As I hope I’ve made clear this is a very impressive programme. The music is expertly constructed and unfailingly constitutes an intelligent and sincere response to the texts in question. Though Matthew Martin’s musical output ranges well beyond sacred music this CD confirms that his is a significant voice in that particular field.
The performances are very fine. The choir sings incisively and technically it is extremely proficient. The singers put the music across with great conviction. The organ parts frequently sound very demanding – Martin is no mean organist himself, I believe – yet Stephen Farr surmounts every challenge thrown at him and makes some thrilling contributions. Both choir and organ have been expertly recorded.