Canticle of sun hill regent REGCD567

The Canticle of the Sun
Charles Wood Singers/David Hill
Philip Scriven (organ)
rec. August 2021, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, Northern Ireland
Texts included
Regent REGCD567 [73]

Charles Wood was born in Armagh in 1866 and was a chorister in the choir of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral – a choir in which his father sang as a tenor. Though he received his early education in Armagh he moved to London in 1883 to study at the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of Stanford (and also Parry). Subsequently, Wood first studied and then taught at Cambridge University, rising eventually to be Professor of Music, in which post he succeeded Stanford in 1924, though he only lived to occupy the chair for two years. Even if his career was spent in England, it’s right that he should be acknowledged and respected in the city of his birth, and since 1994 Armagh has hosted, each August, the annual Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School. As we learn from Regent’s booklet, “This unique Festival works to support, nurture and inspire the next generation of choral professionals”.

There are two choirs associated with this Festival; one is the Charles Wood Girls’ Choir and the other, an SATB ensemble, is the Charles Wood Singers. The members of the Singers are aged between 18 and 28; on this CD, 21 young artists are involved (7/5/4/5), singing under the direction of their Artistic Director, David Hill. Organist Philip Scriven is also closely involved with the Singers and here he plays for them in most of the items. In the past, I’ve heard various incarnations of the Charles Wood Singers in BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong, but I fancy this may be their debut CD.

Before we hear music by Wood himself, the programme opens, fittingly, with two pieces by Stanford from opposite ends of his career. The Magnificat in B-flat dates from 1879 and is part of the Morning and Evening Services and Communion Service that he composed, as his Op 10, during his time as Organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. The Magnificat is a splendid affair, blending forthright passages and attractively lyrical episodes, according to the demands of the text. Here we can experience the confidence of the twenty-four-year-old Stanford. The present performance is terrific. Eternal Father is a much later piece; it’s from a set of three motets, composed in 1915 which comprise Stanford’s Op 135. The piece in question is an a cappella setting for six-part choir (SSATBB) of lines by Robert Bridges. It’s an eloquent setting, showing Stanford in his full maturity. The ending is particularly lovely and moving; in his notes Philip Moore rightly describes the closing pages as “music of deep contemplation”. The performance is highly expressive.

Charles Wood himself is represented by five pieces, all of them excellent. Actually, one piece isn’t wholly by Wood. Philip Moore, who was the distinguished Organist of York Minster (1983-2008), took Wood’s hymn It were my soul’s desire and arranged it into a hymn anthem in 2013. As the piece unfolds Moore’s arrangement increasingly elaborates Wood’s melody and the music grows in grandeur, both in the choral writing and in the organ part. The gentle, humble conclusion is very satisfying. Moore has expanded Wood’s music very successfully indeed.

Expectans expectavi is a deeply felt setting of lines by the poet of the Great War, Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915). Wood’s response to the words results in a most impressive composition, which David Hill and his forces deliver with fine sensitivity. O Thou the central orb is arguably Wood’s best-known anthem. Its popularity is well-deserved. There’s great assurance in the writing and the music fits the words very well indeed. Oculi omnium is a short, prayerful Introit for unaccompanied choir, which uses Latin words. The Nunc dimittis, composed for R. R. Terry and his Westminster Cathedral choir is also in Latin and unaccompanied. Both are highly accomplished pieces, expertly performed here.

All the pieces by Amy Beach were new to me. If one takes a look at the list of her compositions on Wikipedia (which may or may not be complete) one gets a sense of how important choral music was in her output; and within the choral genre, church music occupied a prominent place.

Let this mind be in you is for bass and soprano soloists, SATB choir and organ. It’s a setting of verses from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. The opening section is sung by the two soloists. To be honest, I find the music, which is inward-looking, a bit on the earnest side, though I hasten to say this is no reflection on the singers. For me, the piece becomes more interesting once the choir joins in (from 2:41). Much of the piece is quite subdued in tone but Beach brings it to a fine climax before the music relapses to a hushed ending. Bonum est confiteri and Deus misereatur are two of the four pieces that comprise ‘Canticles for Four-part Mixed Voices with organ Accompaniment’, Op 76 which Amy Beach completed in 1916. All four pieces set verses from various Psalms and I presume that the other two, like the ones recorded here, are in English despite their Latin titles. Bonum est confiteri includes a demanding part for a solo soprano. I especially admire Deus misereatur, much of which is quiet and prayerful in nature, though there is a more exultant central section. The piece, which sets verses from Psalm 67, ends with a ‘Glory be’ which, Philip Moore points out, is a re-working of the setting of the music to which the same words were set at the end of Bonum est confiteri; I wonder if this is a common feature of the set of four Canticles.

The longest and most ambitious piece on the programme is Beach’s The Canticle of the Sun which was composed in 1924 and then orchestrated in 1928. Here, it is given in the reduction for organ (or piano) accompaniment which was published in 1928. Since this is claimed as the first recording of this version I wonder if that implies that the piece has been recorded previously in its orchestral guise. Amy Beach took for her text the celebrated verses by St Francis of Assisi in the English translation by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). The piece is on a large scale – here it plays for 24:33 – and besides choir and organ, no less than five solo singers (SSATB) are involved. The choral sections of the work are impressive. There’s an extended passage (3:51 – 7:30) during which three soloists are involved. Though the singers are accomplished, I must admit I found this section was less interesting. The music engaged my attention rather more when the chorus re-joined the proceedings; Beach’s choral writing is interesting and assured. Subsequently, a soprano soloist has a demanding, extended episode and in this solo the tessitura is very high at times. Overall, I think The Canticle of the Sun is an impressive piece, though I can’t escape the feeling that it might have been even more effective had it been a little shorter. However, there’s no denying the depth of feeling in the music: Philip Moore suggests in his notes that this was a text Beach wanted to set and I’m sure he’s right. This performance is full of conviction.

If this is indeed the CD debut of the Charles Wood Singers then it’s an impressive one. The programme is interesting and it’s impressively performed. The singing throughout is disciplined, committed and accomplished. Several members of the choir are called upon to sing solo roles – all of them demanding in their various ways – during the Beach pieces; all acquit themselves very well. Of course, in David Hill the singers have the benefit of training and direction by one of the UK’s leading choral conductors. Philip Scriven’s organ playing is first-class throughout.

The performances have been truthfully and pleasingly recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of St Patrick’s Cathedral by engineer David Walker and producer Gary Cole. The booklet essay by Philip Moore is authoritative and interesting.

I hope we will hear more of the Charles Wood Singers on CD in the future.

John Quinn

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Magnificat in B-flat (Evening Service), Op 10 (1879)
Eternal Father (1915)
Charles Wood (1866-1926)
Expectans expectavi (1919)
It were my soul’s desire arr. Philip Moore (b 1943)*
O Thou the central orb (1915)
Oculi omnium (1933)
Nunc dimittis in B-flat (Latin, à 6, a cappella) (1916)
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Let this mind be in you, Op 105 (1924)
Bonum est confiteri, Op 76, No 1 (1916)*
Deus misereatur, Op 78, No 2 (1916)*
The Canticle of the Sun, Op 123 (1924)†

* first recording
† first recording of the version with organ accompaniment