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After the Sabbath
The Choir of Birmingham Cathedral/Marcus Huxley
David Hardie (organ)
rec. 2016, Birmingham Cathedral, England REGENT REGCD490 [73:51]
The sound of an English cathedral choir is unique. That age-old combination of men and boys whose lives are devoted to the singing of sacred music in major places of worship, often buildings which are themselves steeped in ancient tradition, epitomises English musical life and represents all that is best in English music-making.
That’s the rosy-hued view, and one which, if it ever was true, was true for just a few decades sometime in the 20th century. Forced not just by public attitudes which demand equality between the genders, but also by purely practical reasons which see the intake of young boys to serve the church through music drying up, most English cathedral choirs include a substantial number of girls whose voices have the great advantage of not breaking when they are in their prime; even if, in combination with the boys, there can never be a perfect blend of sound. On top of that, reflecting national population shifts, buildings have been called into service as cathedrals which have neither the ancient traditions nor the architectural splendour which imbue the music-making within their walls with that special sense of timelessness. And then there is the rapid decline in attendance noted throughout the Church of England, the growing attention given to other faiths and creeds, as well as, certainly in the latter part of the 20th century, the wholescale spread of secularisation. This has rendered much of the cathedral music which was once as tightly woven into the fabric of English life as policemen’s bulbous helmets, red telephone kiosks and Routemaster buses, largely irrelevant to the great mass of the country’s population today.
This CD of the Birmingham Cathedral Choir bears testimony to the changes which have taken place in English cathedral music over the past few decades.
For a start, Birmingham Cathedral was never intended as a cathedral and was elevated to its present status only in 1905 after the city’s population had grown to such an extent that it warranted the Church of England setting up a Diocese centred on the city. Then, as English cathedrals go, it is not exactly an ancient building. True, it dates back to 1715, but compared with the likes of say Winchester, Canterbury or Durham, it is a raw youngster, and unlike those older edifices, its acoustic properties are significantly less opulent. That dryness of acoustic, that unsympathetic moulding of the sound and the decidedly flat perspective, significantly flavours the sound of the choir, and it is much to the credit of this recording that the unique, if unflattering acoustic of Birmingham Cathedral is faithfully caught.
As for the choir, it comprised at the time of this recording 14 boys, 20 girls and a generous complement of 14 male voices supplying the alto, tenor and bass parts. This recording gives us a taste of the complete choir as well as its constituent parts, including the men alone in a slightly cumbersome account of Tallis’s If ye Love Me and Mendelssohn’s Say, where is He born?, which is for me one of the highlights of the disc with a solo line delectably sung by David Emerson. I’m guessing at this (the booklet does not tell us), but I suspect a beautifully flowing account of Dum transisset Sabbatum involves boys and men, while Mary Davies’s soothing The Souls of the Righteous involves just the female voices. In combination, the sound can be a little hard-edged and heavy, and I fear this is why Weelkes’s Hosanna to the Son of David lacks finesse. At its best, however, the choral tone is vivid and clear, that cleanliness of sound, dictated by the lack of acoustic depth, used to good effect in Marcus Huxley’s conscientious handling of the inner texture of such gems as Mendelssohn’s antiphonal Kyrie eleison and Bruckner’s Christus factus est.
Huxley’s long familiarity with the Birmingham Cathedral environment – he was appointed Director of Music in 1986 and this recording was the last he made before his retirement a couple of months ago – is obvious in the way he shapes the sound to suit the building, leaving nothing to chance but moulding every last detail with consummate care. This is powerfully evident in the long-breathed, sinuous unison line of Dvořák’s Tu Trinitatis and in his exquisite dynamic shading for Stanford’s Beati quorum via. We also get to hear the organ on its own in Duruflé’s Méditation, in which David Hardie compensates masterfully for the building’s lack of reverberation with an exquisitely atmospheric performance.
Some things just do not work in this setting – Faire is the Heaven really demands a more opulent sound - while others do not really work on any level – I wonder why When I survey the wondrous cross needed this self-indulgent arrangement when Edward Miller’s original tune (Rockingham) can easily stand close scrutiny sung as it is – and would still have afforded Huxley the opportunity to highlight the lovely solo treble of Ben Thompson. On the other hand the unique qualities of the Birmingham choir are perfectly suited to Stuart Nicholson’s jazzy version of Ding dong! Merrily on High, Antony le Fleming’s highly-charged setting of the Nunc Dimittis, and Edward Bairstow’s substantial setting of The Lamentations, which comes across with complete and total conviction; a performance which, on its own, is well worth the price of the disc.
But there is one other element which makes Birmingham Cathedral choir different from others; and while the clue is in the disc’s title, the evidence can only be found online.
Among the many highly successful rock groups which started their careers in Birmingham, perhaps the best known was the heavy metal band Black Sabbath; who disbanded earlier this year. Founder member and guitarist/song-writer Tony Iommi collaborated with the choir in a five-minute piece for traditional choir with instrumental support, interspersed with atmospheric (and decidedly un-heavy metallic) guitar riffs called How Good it Is. It’s a highly effective and quite moving piece and while it is disappointing that it could not be committed to the CD, it is available as a free download.
Thomas WEELKES (1575-1623) – Hosanna to the Son of David [2:05]
John TAVERNER (1490-1545) – Dum transisset Sabbatum [7:35]
arr. Stuart NICHOLSON (b.1975) – Ding dong! Merrily on High [2:51]
Mary L DAVIES (20th cent.) – The Souls of the Righteous [1:30]
arr. Marcus HUXLEY (b.1949) – When I Survey the Wondrous Cross [4:26]
Antony le FLEMING (b.1941) – Nunc Dimittis [2:57]
Heinrich SCHUTZ (1585-1672) – The heavens are telling the Father’s glory [4:43]
Bryan KELLY (b.1934) – O clap your hands [5:08]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585) – If ye love me [2:10]
Felix MENDLESSOHN (1809-1847) – Say, where is He born? (from Christus) [2:37]
Maurice DURUFLE (1902-1986) – Meditation [4:30]
Felix MENDELSSOHN – Kyrie eleison [1:34]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) – Christus factus est [4:53]
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) – The Lamentation [10:02]
Felix MENDELSSOHN – Lift thine eyes (from Elijah) [1:58]
Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904) – Tu Trinitatis [2:41]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) – Beati quorum via [3:26]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594) – Sicut cervus [3:49]
William HARRIS (1883-1973) – Faire is the heaven [4:50]