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Masses for Double Choir
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
Mass, Op.44 (1965) [28:58]
Mimi Doulton (soprano), Caitlin Goreing (alto), William Hester (tenor), Joseph Edwards (bass)
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 [6:00]
James Orford (organ)
The Choir of King’s College London/Joseph Fort
rec. 18-20 April 2018, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London. DDD
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from chandos.net.
DELPHIAN DCD34211 [63:42]

This is the only available recording on CD of the Leighton Mass, Op.44: the Chandos recording by the Finzi Singers conducted by Paul Spicer is now download only (CHAN9485, with Crucifixus and other music, from chandos.net, mp3 or 16-bit, with pdf booklet). In October 2009 I borrowed a description of the Naxos recording of Leighton (below) to describe that recording as evoking affirmation from the soul and it remains my benchmark.

On Chandos, the Mass comes with some very valuable recordings of Leighton’s other sacred music: God’s Grandeur, a setting of words by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the powerful Crucifixus pro nobis, the affirmative Laudate pueri, and other shorter works. I would recommend even reluctant downloaders to obtain it, were it not that there are other fine accounts of Crucifixus, notably from St John’s Cambridge, directed by Christopher Robinson, on Naxos 8.555795, coupled with An Easter Sequence and other works – review DL Roundup March 2010.

For those seeking more of Leighton’s sacred music, there’s his Missa brevis, Op.50 on a recording of his Cathedral Music, from St Paul’s (Hyperion Helios CDH55195, budget price if ordered or downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk). I praised this in DL Roundup September 2011/2. The Missa Brevis, God’s Grandeur and Crucifixus pro nobis also feature on a very fine full-price Hyperion recording of Leighton’s music (CDA68039 – review review DL News 2015/4). His Missa de Gloria, or Dublin Festival Mass, Op.82, has been recorded by Naxos (8.572601).

Leighton’s music is not ‘easy’, least of all his choral works, but it pays rewards. A product of his own love of church music, it nevertheless often mirrors the dark night of the soul, as is immediately apparent from the opening Kyrie of the Mass, rising to a cry of despair – or demand – such as we might expect from the crowd baying for Jesus to be crucified in a setting of the Passion.

On Chandos the Mass follows Crucifixus after the intensity is allowed to relax a little in Lullay thou little tiny child, but there’s plenty of intensity in the singing of the opening Kyrie. This is music in a very cold climate, indeed, and there’s not too much warmth in the rather spikey Gloria, but the Finzi Singers never allow the spikiness to become too dominant.

Though the Gloria is not as unambiguously joyful as we might expect, there’s some intricate and thought-provoking part-writing. I wouldn’t like to have to sing some of the parts; those for women’s voices are especially tricky, but the music achieves far more than simple admiration of the composer’s virtuosity.

All this is very well traversed by Paul Spicer and his team. Leighton’s music may be very different from that of Finzi, from whom they take their name, but they are just as much at home here. The Credo is short and sweet; it’s possible to imagine it sounding as if dashed off, but the Finzi Singers manage to make its three-minute traversal sound distinguished. What could easily have become a gabble is prevented from doing so. Towards the end, as the words celebrate the resurrection and the institution of the church, the music becomes more exuberant and the performance captures the change of mood excellently – the organ accompaniment, absent from the rest of the Mass, really helps here.

After that, one might expect Leighton to burst into the Sanctus, as the high point of the Mass approaches, but the adulation builds up slowly to a soaring high point worthy of the finest renaissance polyphonic composer, perhaps the result of his studies in Oxford of Palestrina. Here and so often in Leighton’s music the high voices are taxed mercilessly, but there’s never any danger of them sounding screechy from the Finzis. At first one wonders what happened to the fact that the words were originally part of the vision of Isaiah ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’ when the prophet was taken up to heaven to hear the angels crying these words aloud, though Leighton’s ending takes us much closer to that vision.

If there is evidence of what I’ve seen described as the composer’s sense of unease in the Sanctus, the same is true of the following Benedictus; these are, after all, the words of welcome of the ‘children of the Hebrews’ who were baying for Jesus’ blood mere days after.

The Benedictus evolves slowly, while the Agnus Dei provides a consolatory, ultimately ethereal, though not always comfortable, end to the music. The settings of the repetitions of miserere make one sense that Leighton would sometimes have liked to shriek at God, as Bernstein does in the Kaddish Symphony, but doesn’t quite go that far. If the Finzi Singers sometimes soften the edges a little, I’m not one to complain.

All in all, the Chandos offers a very fine account of the Mass. It’s a life-enhancing work, though one has to work to get its benefits, so it was a good idea to round off the Chandos recording with the setting of Laudate pueri, though even there the praise of the Lord is punctuated with moments of struggle. Its availability on Chandos only as a download, can be explained only by the shameful neglect of Leighton’s music, which makes the new Delphian all the more welcome.

There’s less of a sense of despair in the new recording, with King’s College Choir, London, bringing out the beauty of the music rather more, though by the end of Kyrie the beauty has clearly shaded into more than a hint of despair. The singing is very accomplished and I imagine that there will be those listeners who will find this performance easier to live with. Many years ago, a colleague left in a hurry on a Friday afternoon to rehearse with King’s College Choir, of which he had been a member since he’d been an undergraduate. I immediately thought he was off to Cambridge, but since then, its mixed-voice London namesake, with six recordings for Delphian to its credit1, has made that no longer an automatic response.

In the Gloria, too, there’s more of a sense of rejoicing on the new recording, without losing sight of the ambiguity that permeates the music. Just occasionally the intricacies of the part writing are challenging for these gifted amateurs by comparison with the accomplished Finzi Singers, but though Leighton’s music is unforgivingly demanding, they rise to the challenge very well.

They give the Credo a little more space than the Finzi Singers, achieving even less of a sense of hurry and a greater sense of the importance of this statement of the core Christian beliefs. In the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, too, very little, if any, allowance has to be made. Try the Sanctus, with its different moods and intricate textures for a sample of what these singers can and do achieve. In the Agnus Dei, as in the opening Kyrie, the cries for mercy are slightly less trenchant than from the Finzi Singers, but the difference is more apparent in an A/B comparison that in listening to this recording in its own right. In both accounts, the final effect is that Leighton’s music contains ‘naught for your comfort’. Perhaps it’s significant that Trevor Huddleston’s book of that title was still widely read in 1966 when the Mass was first performed.  Though apartheid is gone, is the book any less relevant today?

For Frank Martin there are several alternatives, of which I’ve considered a 2005 Hyperion recording from Westminster Cathedral Choir and James O’Donnell (CDA67017, with Pizzetti Requiem and De Profundis - from hyperion-records.co.uk) and a Coro recording, also released in 2005, with The Sixteen and Harry Christophers on an all-Martin album (COR16029, with Songs of Ariel and Chansons – reviewed as a lossless download, with pdf booklet, from thesixteenshop.com).

We seem not to have reviewed either of these, though colleagues have praised the Hyperion in reviewing other music by Pizzetti. It has one advantage in that it concentrates on sacred music, where the Coro mixes sacred and secular. It also comes with the imprimatur of a choir with a more continental sound in their blood. Though this may not be an advantage in a Mass composed by a composer who received a Calvinist upbringing and was uneasy at acknowledging his work, it’s a very special recording and I must recommend it, despite my reservations about the music (below).

The opening Cantata for the first of August on Coro sets the tone for Martin’s sacred music – sparse but approachable. Martin apparently regarded his Mass as a private affair which he kept from public view until 1963; though it, too, is set for double chorus, the intimate scale of The Sixteen is appropriate. The moments of exuberance in the Leighton may be spikey, but those in Martin are more muted.

The two composers have been paired before, on a 1994 recording from the Vasari Singers of the Leighton Requiem and Martin Mass (Signum, nla). Nevertheless, the similarities between the two Masses are much less than I have seen suggested – and less than the new King’s recording may suggest. Though Martin’s Credo is not much longer than Leighton’s, for example, it seems more personally felt. The Sixteen bring out his desolate response to the words passus … sub Pontio Pilato; though there’s no match for the exuberance of the organ-accompanied end of the section from Martin, it does end on a dancing note.

In fact, the Credo is the heart of the setting, in spirit as well as in its position. The Westminster Cathedral singers presumably believe the words they are singing, the other performers not necessarily so, yet while the Hyperion recording deserves pride of place, not least for the discovery of the Pizzetti Requiem, neither The Sixteen nor King’s College are far behind. The Hyperion also gains in the use of boys’ voices – not always an advantage, but it is so here, as also on the recent King’s Cambridge collection The Music of King’s, which includes the Agnus Dei from this Mass (KGS0034 – Spring 2019/2).

I’ve seen it suggested that the Martin is the finest a cappella setting of the Mass of the twentieth century. Certainly, all three of the recordings, including the new King’s, present it as an admirable achievement, but ultimately it’s a little too unvaried in austerity for me, the work of a composer with whom I have never quite come to terms.

To sum up: the new King’s recording offers fine performances of both works and the kind of recording quality and presentation that we have come to expect from Delphian2. My first choice for the Leighton would still be the Finzi Singers on Chandos, even though that’s download only, and for Martin The Sixteen on their own Coro label, or, even better still, Westminster Cathedral Choir on Hyperion. Of the three recordings, theirs is the one that comes closest to persuading me that I may have been too guarded in my response to Martin’s music. No-one buying the new Delphian recording, however, need feel short-changed; it comes down, as so often, to a question of couplings and if the Leighton and Martin together appeal, that’s the one to go for. The 24-bit download is worth paying a little more for.

1 Most recently in an English version of Brahms’ German Requiem – very successfully sung despite Paul Corfield Godfrey’s reservations about the arrangement – review.

2 Two small grumbles: the date of the Leighton work is not given, even in the notes, and, to be pedantic, there’s no such thing as ‘Cranmer’s 1550 Book of Common Prayer’ – the Merbecke setting referred to, published that year, was of the 1549 Prayer Book.

Brian Wilson



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