Masses for Double Choir
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
Mass, Op.44 (1965) [28:58]
Frank MARTIN (1890–1974)
Mass for double choir (1922-26, first performance 1966) [28:37]
Jehan ALAIN (1911–1940)
Postlude pour l’office de Complies (1930) [6:00]
Mimi Doulton (soprano), Caitlin Goreing (alto), William Hester (tenor), Joseph Edwards (bass)
James Orford (organ)
The Choir of King’s College, London/Joseph Fort
rec. 2018, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London.
Text and translation included
DELPHIAN DCD34211 [63:42]
When I lived in London I worshipped at All Saints, Margaret Street in central London, which has an excellent choir. It was there that I first heard Kenneth Leighton’s Mass, in its proper liturgical context. It was the first work of Leighton I heard, and it sent me off on a quest for more of his music, including not only the choral pieces for which he is probably best known, but also his orchestral and chamber works.
I somehow managed to miss the recording of this Mass by the Finzi Singers under Paul Spicer (CHAN9485) so this is the first time I have heard it for some years. It has lost none of its mystery and fascination. Leighton’s idiom employs a range of techniques, which include harmonic clashes, long melismas, also syllabic chanting and, sometimes, dance rhythms. The clashes in the overlapping polyphony of the ‘Kyrie’ reminded me at first of the opening of the near-contemporary Requiem by Ligeti, first performed the year before Leighton’s Mass – had he heard it by then, I wondered. But in fact, I think Leighton derives more directly from the Holst of the Hymn of Jesus and the smaller choral works. If Holst had written a mass, it might have been something like this. It is full of surprises: the ‘Gloria’ begins as a kind of wild dance; the ‘Credo’, normally the longest movement, is here one of the shortest, beginning with chanting close to plainsong though over organ chords. The ‘Sanctus’ is gentle and rocking rather than vigorous. The ‘Benedictus’ has some harmonic clashes like those in the Hymn of Jesus. There are some very high-lying lines for the sopranos, but the ‘Agnus Dei’ begins in the depths with the basses. The booklet records that Leighton once said to a student that most musicians considered this work his “best effort in the field of church music” and they may well be right.
Frank Martin is also a favourite composer of mine. His Mass is an early work, but Martin held it back for forty years, so that in performance it is slightly later than the Leighton. Martin’s father was a Calvinist minister in Geneva, so writing a Mass, which is of course a Catholic rite, might have been a kind of rebellion. Martin wrote it, without a commission, to fulfil some inner need and said “I considered it be a matter between God and myself. I felt that a personal expression of religious belief should remain secret and hidden from public opinion”. It is a beautiful work, but not typical of the mature Martin: it hardly features the snappy rhythms and pungent harmonies that we find, for example, in the Petite Symphonie Concertante, or, for that matter, in his later religious pieces. Instead there is the clear influence of plainchant, fine lyrical writing and some rich harmonies. It is, I should admit, something of a withdrawn and reserved work, but one well worth getting to know. It is not really very like the Leighton; think of it instead as a more introverted companion to the near-contemporary Mass by Vaughan Williams.
Finally, we have an early work by Alain to play us out, one based on the plainchant for Compline, the last service of the day, sensitively handled by James Orford.
King’s College London Choir, unlike their namesake in Cambridge, is a mixed choir with women as sopranos and altos. They sing with great assurance and flexibility and the sopranos take no prisoners in their attack on their high lines. I noticed only one brief moment of insecurity. The recorded sound is fine. The booklet contains the Latin text and a translation which is neither the traditional one, nor the standard modern one, but a lightly modernized version of the former.
With the Finzi Singers’ version of the Leighton now available only as a download, this is the only current disc available of the Leighton. There are several versions of the Martin, including a fine one from The Sixteen coupled with other works by Martin (Coro COR16029); if you prefer male voices there is the Westminster Cathedral Choir, coupled with Pizzetti (Hyperion CDA67017). But if you go for this coupling you will not be disappointed.
Previous review: Brian Wilson