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Great Hymns from Liverpool
The Choir of Liverpool Cathedral/David Poulter
Ian Tracey (organ)
rec. 2016, Liverpool Cathedral PRIORY RECORDS PRCD1180 [78:08]
Never let anyone get away with that hoary old cliché about Britain producing no music of worth between Purcell and Britten. You would be hard-pressed to find an edition of MusicWeb International that does not include coverage of significant British symphonists, chamber and piano music composers and song writers of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. And if the nay-sayers continue to belittle the achievements of British music by suggesting that there was nobody to rival a Bach, a Beethoven, a Brahms, a Wagner or even a Rossini or a Berlioz, ask them if any of those composers or their compatriots produced anything which has withstood repeated performance and reception across all age and class divisions, across all levels of education, status and wealth, and across every level of musical ability, to retain the power to move and inspire in our own day? Not only this, working within an incredibly limiting time-scale and adhering to an even more incredibly restricting formula, dozens of British composers over much of the last 300 years have produced enduring musical gems in almost mind-boggling numbers. Yes, the British might not have set the world alight with their operas, symphonies, concertos or sonatas, but they got all the world in every corner to sing their hymns.
During the 19th century in particular, no British composer could possibly give full attention to such musical luxury goods as opera, symphony, concerto or string quartet in the face of the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for new hymns. What might the international standing of British music been had the likes of John Goss, William Henry Monk, William Horsely, Alexander Ewing, Clement Scholefield, devoted their energies towards more sexy musical genres than hymns? But they didn’t, and as a result there is a wonderful world of uniquely British musical gems which still have the power to move, uplift, invigorate, thrill and inspire. And if you are still sceptical, listen to this fabulous CD.
The choir of Liverpool Cathedral sing their way through 25 wonderful hymns in this spectacular and sumptuous celebration of English hymnody. My Welsh friends might well be up in arms that this city, so close to their borders, seems studiously to have avoided the truly great hymns which have largely given rise to the claim that Wales is the Land of Song (perhaps next time?), and there will be others, equally passionate about their hymns, who will boil and fume at the omission of a particular favourite. For my part, how I would have liked to hear “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” (Helmsley) and “Thy Hand, O God, Has Guided” (Thornbury), but I would not want their inclusion to be at the sacrifice of such marvels as “Angel voices ever singing” or “Just as I am, without one plea”. So, I can offer nothing but praise to whoever devised this programme, recognising the painful decisions on omission and inclusion which had to be made. As it is, essential favourites are here, there is a fine balance between celebration, meditation, old, new, grand and intimate, and only a stone-hearted gargoyle would fail to be hugely impressed by this selection.
That same gargoyle would also, surely, find his stone heart melting under the searing heat of these glorious performances, beautifully and painstakingly prepared by David Poulter. There is, of course, an inevitable problem in presenting 80 minutes’ worth of non-stop hymnody; the stop-and-start progress through 102 individual verses (plus three refrains and a doxology), many of which last a mere matter of seconds. Poulter and his no-holes-barred organist, Ian Tracey, both do a fabulous job in maintaining the flow through each hymn with varied arrangements, re-arranged part writing, descants and organ harmonisations for the separate verses of each hymn, but in the end, as a purely listening experience it does tend to move along in fits and starts. I love the unaccompanied performance of “There is a Green Hill Far Away” with the various manipulations of the four voice parts taking Horsely’s famous melody through a wide variety of guises, which nicely traces the narrative of Mrs Alexander’s words, although the great climax on the words “unlock the Gates of Heaven” seems more an attempt to inject colour for its own sake than to reflect this essentially meditative text.
Liverpool Cathedral is a vast building with an appropriately cavernous acoustic. Priory, well used to the venue, have done a brilliant job in capturing the clarity of the choir and the essence of the acoustic. However, the need to project words in the regular round of cathedral services means that, when you hear them at these relatively close quarters, you are very much aware of the choir’s exaggerated consonants, over-dramatized commas and excessive deliberation of phrasing. It is to Poulter’s great credit that, far from seeming affected or pretentious, there is something quite endearing about these habits, and one thing is certain – which is really important in all hymns – we hear every word beautifully enunciated.
A particularly noteworthy feature of this singing is the choir’s ability to hold and shape a musical phrase. We first hear that from the top voices in the third verse of Goss’s incomparable setting of “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven”, majestically presented here in an opulent arrangement by Paul Leddington Wright, and even more beautifully in a long-drawn-out performance of “Drop, drop, slow tears” which milks Orlando Gibbons’ melody for every drop of loveliness. The whole choir does it to perfection in the unison first verse of Vaughan Williams’s classic tune for “Come Down, O Love Divine”, while for “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”, “Come, Holy Ghost” and “O heavenly word of God on High” - plainchant hymns which, while not being quintessential British, are sung very much in the comfortable English cathedral style with smoothed down, carefully manicured expressiveness - the men’s voices exude a mellow mellifluousness which is an object lesson in vocal control.
There is a simply enchanting arrangement by Simon Lindley of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” with a deliciously delicate organ accompaniment and a splendid solo verse sung by treble Christian Squires, which is difficult to pass by without hitting the repeat button. There’s also a tremendously sturdy romp through that most uplifting of hymns, “The Strife is O’er”, with piercing arrows sent flying by the chorus “alleluias”. Spine-tingling descants add a real lustre to the last verse of already sparkling hymns including “Angel voices, ever singing” and Howells’ own for his mighty setting of “All my Hope on God is Founded”. Tracey’s organ accompaniment to “Abide with Me” (incorporating the Last Post) is a real treasure, and while I feel Poulter’s arrangement of Parry’s setting of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is no improvement at all on the superb version which already exists in the hymn books, it certainly offers a great opportunity for him to show the rich quality of his whole choir. And we can’t mention Parry without a nod towards “Jerusalem”. Hackneyed and over-used as this might be on the football terraces and in the September Proms jamboree – not to mention at 101 other mass gatherings where its sentiments are given an unsettlingly xenophobic twist – you don’t want to miss this stirring performance, if only to hear how great this musical setting of Blake really is.
As the hymnist wrote, here we have the ultimate example of “craftsman’s art and music’s measure” in perfect and utterly pleasurable combination.
Marc Rochester Contents
Praise my soul the King of heaven - (LAUDA ANIMA) John Goss (1800-1880) – arr. Paul Leddington Wright [3:06]
Come down, O love divine - (DOWN AMPNEY) Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) [3:21]
Just as I am, without one plea - (SAFFRON WALDEN) Arthur Henry Brown (1830-1926) [3:59]
Christ is made the sure foundation - (WESTMINSTER ABBEY) Henry Purcell (1659-1695) [4:23]
Sing my tongue, the glorious battle – (PANGE LINGUA) Plainsong [2:59]
Angel voices ever singing – (ANGEL VOICES) E G Monk (1819-1909) [3:19]
Jerusalem the golden - (EWING) Alexander Ewing (1830-1895) [1:43]
Dear Lord and father of mankind – (REPTON) Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) [4:33]
Abide with me – (EVENTIDE) William Henry Monk (1823-1889) [4:34]
I vow to thee, my country – (THAXTED) Gustav Holst (1874-1934) [2:19]
Drop, drop slow tears – (SONG 46) Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) [1:43]
Come, Holy Ghost our souls inspire - (VENI CREATOR) Plainsong [2:28]
When I survey the wondrous cross – (ROCKINGHAM) Edward Miller (1731-1807) [3:07]
There is a green hill far away – (HORSLEY) William Horsley (1774-1858) [2:40]
Now the green blade riseth – (NOEL NOUVELET) French trad. Arr. Simon Lindley [2:34]
The strife is o'er, the battle done – (GELOBT SEI GOTT) Melchior Vulpius (1560-1616), arr. Henry G Ley [2:36]
O heavenly word of God on high – (MECHLIN AMPHONARIUM ROMANUM) 1838 [2:21]
O praise ye the Lord! – (LAUDATE DOMINUM) Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) [2:46]
All my hope on God is founded - (MICHAEL) Herbert Howells (1892-1983) [2:53]
Long ago, prophets knew – (PERSONENT HODIE) Gustav Holst (1874-1934) [2:05]
The church's one foundation – (AURELIA) Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) [4:54]
How shall I sing that majesty – (COE FEN) Kenneth Naylor (1931-1991) [4:04]
And did those feet – (JERUSALEM) Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) [2:51]
The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended – (ST CLEMENT) Clement Scholefield (1839-1904) [3:16]
Before the ending of the day – (TE LUCIS ANTE TERMINUM) Plainchant [1:23]