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Poetry in Music
Musical Settings of George Herbert
John Challenger (organ)
Choir of Salisbury Cathedral/David Halls
rec. 2018, Salisbury Cathedral
Texts and notes included.

Poetry in Music, a seemingly general title, is especially apt for this disc, which features settings of the poetry of George Herbert. Besides the inherent musicality of Herbert’s verse, the poet used many musical terms and much musical imagery in his poems, and even composed himself. He would also walk twice a week from his parish at Bemerton to Salisbury to hear the cathedral music and to participate in a regular music group. Thus, it is singularly appropriate that the choir of Salisbury Cathedral should record an entire program of settings of Herbert.

Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs is the most famous setting of the words of Herbert, but this is a work written for the concert hall and for baritone and orchestra (with optional chorus). The music suffers somewhat when translated to a cathedral setting, although the singing of the soloist Richard Hooper and of the choir is excellent. More traditional are the two settings by Sir William Henry Harris – the comparatively little-known Come, my way and the more frequently heard King of Glory, king of peace. Both of these feature splendid writing for the upper voices – well projected by the choir and by soloist Isabella Bowman. Of slightly later vintage is Hadley’s A Song for Easter, one his loveliest short works, again beautifully done here.

Many of Herbert’s poems have been set as hymns. Two of these are presented on this disc: Come my way by Alexander Brent-Smith, and I cannot ope mine eyes by the Salisbury Director David Halls. Both of these are serviceable, but I found Hall’s anthem Teach me, my God and King much more effective. The pieces by Mary Plumstead and Grayston Ives are simple but also effective, while the Alec Roth piece is notable for its sense of wistfulness.

More advanced in idiom are the works by Barry Ferguson and Judith Bingham. Ferguson has set Herbert’s Our life is hid with Christ in God. The poet put there a semi-hidden message, which Ferguson gradually reveals though clever musical means. Judith Bingham has set the first of two Herbert poems entitled Prayer, and even today this text seems very modern. Bingham takes full advantage of this in her music. She produces a mini-tone poem in what is one of the of the highlights of the disc.

Herbert also wrote two poems with the title Antiphon, one was set by Walton and the other by Britten. Walton’s piece is a late work, arresting and a little surprising for this stage of the composer’s output. Herbert’s second Antiphon is in dialogue form. Britten ably contrasts the earthly and heavenly voices in the text. One could say that, if the poet were to return today, he might find Britten’s ideas closest to his own. Again, the choir sings with great clarity and precision, and organist John Challenger is to be especially commended.

David Halls has a wide variety of musical styles to deal with on this disc. He handles his task not only with technical skill but also with great imagination. John Challenger is equally imaginative in his accompaniments, especially in the more modern pieces. Naturally, the choir itself in is fine form. My only caveats are some shrillness in the upper registers of the choir and the placing of the microphones. This is a notable disc, highlighting both the excellence of Salisbury’s musical establishment and the variety of music inspired by Herbert’s verse. Since there are so many more Herbert settings, from both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps we can hope for Volume Two.

William Kreindler

1. William Walton (1902-1982)
Let all the world (1977) [3:19]
2. William H. Harris (1883-1973)
Come, my way (1937) [2:54]
3. David Halls (b. 1963)
Hymn: I cannot ope mine eyes (2003) [2:58]
4. Patrick Hadley (1899-1973)
A Song for Easter (1937) [1:57]
5-9. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Five Mystical Songs (1911) [22:40]
10. William H. Harris
King of glory, king of peace (1925) [5:25]
11. Mary Plumstead (1905-1980)
A Grateful Heart (nd.) [1:51]
12. Grayston Ives (b. 1948)
Listen, sweet dove (2005) [3:42]
13. Judith Bingham (b. 1952)
Prayer (2008) [4:41]
14. Barry Ferguson (b. 1942)
Our life is hid with Christ in God (2003) [5:56]
15. Alec Roth (b. 1948)
The Flower (2007) [3:15]
16. David Halls
Teach me, my God and King (2012) [3:31]
17. Alexander Brent Smith (1889-1950)
Hymn: Come my way (1925) [2:17]
18. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Antiphon (1956) [7:09]

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