Richard ALLAIN (b 1965)
A Perfect Friend* [3:46]
The Norwich Service [9:00]
If music be the food of love* [5:08]
Cana's Guest [2:52]
The Magi's Gifts* [3:30]
The Beloved* [4:09]
Welcome, all wonders* [3:33]
O Day-spring [4:00]
Videte miraculum [13:56]
A Prayer of St Richard of Chichester [2:53]
Don't you weep when I am gone [2:26]
God be in my head* [4:01]
The Lord reigns* [3:44]
Choir of Merton College Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas
Alex Little, Tom Fetherstonhaugh (organ)
rec. 2017, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34207 [64:08]
It came as something of a surprise to read that the partnership between Delphian and the Choir of Merton College has now been going for ten years. I think I’ve heard all the discs that have stemmed from that partnership and they’ve been uniformly impressive. After a series of themed programmes, many of which were centred around a particular season in the Church’s year, I understand that the intention now is to produce a series of discs, each one of which will be devoted to the music of a single living composer. This one, the first in that projected series, focusses on the music of the British composer, Richard Allain. His music is not new to disc but so far as I’m aware this is the first time a whole disc has been devoted to his works.
In addition to his compositional career, Richard Allain is Director of Music at Norwich School. It was for that city’s cathedral – where Benjamin Nicholas was once a chorister, I believe - that he wrote the Norwich Service. Both the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ are very attractive and the ‘Mag’ presents good opportunities for the Merton College Chapel organ to be shown off. The doxology that concludes this Canticle is very confident and declamatory in nature. The Nunc dimittis is slow-moving and includes important soprano and baritone solos, which are very well taken here (Francesca Miller and Patrick Keefe respectively). I think Allain’s setting is a particularly good response to the text of the Canticle. It ends with a completely different doxology.
Three of the pieces were conceived as a group: Cana's Guest, The Magi's Gifts and
The Beloved. All three set texts by the composer’s brother and frequent collaborator, Thomas Allain. Cana's Guest, originally commissioned for a wedding service, was subsequently selected for inclusion in the Choirbook for the Queen,
a collection of new and recent anthems published to mark the diamond jubilee
of Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The other two pieces were commissioned for
another Choirbook, The Merton Choirbook, which is a substantial collection of new music specifically written by a host of notable composers for the Merton College Choir. All three of Allain’s pieces seem to me to be very successful. Cana's Guest opens mysteriously and moves via some wonderful harmonic progressions to a radiant climax, here splendidly delivered by choir and organ. Both the text and music of The Magi's Gifts, which is unaccompanied seems to me to be an eloquent exposition of the mystery of Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi. The Beloved, which is organ-accompanied, is concerned with Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan. The music begins softly but grows in power and intensity. In the middle of the piece there is a short, arresting organ toccata which, I suspect, represents the power of God the Father descending through baptism. I also admired very much the piece’s hushed ending.
The most substantial piece on the disc is one that I’ve head before. Videte miraculum was commissioned by Suzi Digby and her choir, ORA. They recorded the piece in 2016 and I reviewed that disc. The piece is a direct response to the anthem of the same name by Thomas Tallis. Tallis’s piece is one of the supreme glories of Tudor polyphony and providing a contemporary response to it is surely not a task to be taken lightly. I admired Richard Allain’s composition when I first heard it in the ORA recording and it’s great to have the chance to return to it now. Allain uses thematic fragments from Tallis’s music and weaves them into his own elaborate polyphonic construction. He also echoes Tallis by resorting to plainchant – the same chant as Tallis – at times. The result is a work that is at once a homage to the Tudor master and also an imaginative composition that takes the inspiration of Tallis in a twenty-first century direction. Benjamin Nicholas and his choir make a fine job of this demanding piece but I think there are two reasons why I prefer the ORA recording. Firstly, Suzi Digby’s approach is, I think, a bit tauter – she takes 10:35, more than three minutes less than this new performance. Secondly – and this may be linked to the more expansive approach on the new recording – I was very conscious of how high-lying the soprano line often is. The Merton sopranos respond very well to the challenge but their tone does seem to me to have something of an edge to it.
Intelligently, the complexities of Videte miraculum are followed on this disc by a piece which is beguilingly simple: A Prayer of St Richard of Chichester is for sopranos and organ. The piece is gentle and very beautiful. There are two verses, the first of which is sung in unison while the second flowers into two-part writing. This is a lovely little piece.
The other piece on this programme which I’ve previously heard is O Day-spring (review) This is a setting, in English, of one of the so-called Great ‘O’ antiphons, used at Evensong/Vespers in the last seven days before Christmas. This particular antiphon is ‘O Oriens’ in its Latin version. This piece is written for two three-part choirs and what especially distinguishes it is the use that Allain makes of a soprano saxophone (here played by Finn McEwan). The saxophonist joins in about halfway through, playing the antiphon’s original plainchant melody. It works extremely well. The date on which ‘O Oriens’ is specified for use in the church’s calendar is December 21. As Joanna Wyld points out in her notes, that’s the shortest day in the year, when natural light is at a premium. Allain’s choral textures in this piece seem to me to convey a sense of light.
I’ve already mentioned one piece that was written for a marriage. So, too, was the setting of God be in my head, which was commissioned by the excellent Oxford-based choir Commotio. The piece is scored for double choir and Allain makes fine use of antiphonal writing. The piece is very beautiful, especially when the two choirs combines for the conclusion of the piece.
I enjoyed every piece on this programme. Richard Allain has an obvious empathy for the human voice. In addition to that, he has a fine and discerning feel for the texts he sets. His choral textures are full of interest and the music falls gratefully on the listener’s ear. This is all eminently approachable and very worthwhile music. The performances of the Merton College choir are up to their usual very high standard and Paul Baxter has recorded them expertly.
The notes by Joanna Wyld are useful but could be even better in two respects. I’d have welcomed more biographical information about the composer. Secondly, in a programme of this kind it’s helpful if the notes discuss each work in order of presentation: I found I was darting all over Miss Wyld’s essay to read about the piece I was listening to at any particular time.