anthems 21st century signum

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2005 and the recording is still available.

Anthems for the 21st Century
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
Jeremy Filsell (organ)
rec. 2005, Tonbridge School Chapel, UK
Signum Classics SIGCD059 [70]

The Vasari Singers is one of Britain’s finest choirs, as I know from having acquired quite a few of their recordings over a long period. However, I hadn’t realised that the choir has been in existence for 25 years.

To celebrate that significant anniversary the choir and their conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, had the inspired idea to commission not a single anniversary work but instead shorter pieces from no less than ten composers. Every single work on this CD is here recorded for the very first time and nine of them are Vasari silver jubilee commissions. The tenth, from Francis Pott, has evolved into a much bigger work which the choir will première in 2006. The works on the disc that were not commissioned for the anniversary are those by Jonathan Dove, Jonathan Rathbone and James MacMillan.

I may as well say straightaway that all the pieces are of high quality – and some more than that – and without exception they receive superb performances. So if I don’t mention a piece specifically that should not be taken as implying anything adverse. It’s interesting, however, that almost all the composers who received commissions have responded with pieces that are predominantly subdued in tone. Does that say something about the times in which we live, I wonder? For the most part the pieces, including the three that weren’t commissioned, are rooted in the language of the “traditional” church anthem. However, these works expand, renew and enrich that tradition: there is nothing dull or routine here. In fact these compositions give one confidence that liturgical music of high quality is still being written today.

It’s worth quoting from Jeremy Backhouse’s very interesting liner note, in which he explains the idea behind the commissions. He tells us that his brief to the composers was that “their work should be able to sit comfortably within the context of a cathedral Evensong but that it could also look beyond any constraints of Liturgy or formal religious doctrine to embrace a wider, more ecumenical audience …” I would say that for the most part the composers have met that challenge successfully.

The piece by Jonathan Dove, one of the few that is accompanied, is imaginative and colourful. The choir starts off quietly, in contrast to the virtuoso organ part but Dove builds the work, a setting of words from Psalm 104, to an exciting conclusion, driven on by the organ. The piece that follows it, by Jonathan Rathbone, confronts a major challenge head-on. He was inspired by the famous anthems, When David heard, by Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins. How on earth do you write a setting of the same words that avoids either being a pastiche, a pale imitation, or something that is dwarfed by those earlier masterpieces? It seems to me that Rathbone has reinterpreted the earlier works in a powerful and individual way. Like his predecessors, he responds to the words with music of subdued but nonetheless deep grief. Indeed, as is the case with the Weelkes and Tomkins anthems, Rathbone’s offering is all the more effective because he employs restraint. The piece is sung with superb control and the hushed ending is particularly atmospheric.

I was greatly taken with Gabriel Jackson’s piece, Now I have known, O Lord, for which he has used words by a 10th century Sufi mystic. The imagery of the words themselves is wonderful – one might imagine John Tavener setting them. As I read them they are the words of a devout and humble man to his Maker. Jackson writes “the text seemed to demand a setting of great inwardness.” The anthem begins quietly, in a mood of rapt adoration and continues in this subdued and intimate vein for most of its duration. Eventually a brief, radiant climax is achieved for the penultimate line of text “In wondrous and ecstatic Grace” but for the following words, “I feel Thee touch my inmost ground” the music sinks back into mystic adoration. This is a quite splendid piece and the Vasari Singers do it full justice.

Organist and composer, Jeremy Filsell, contributes a setting of words by Alice Meynell (1847-1922). The music is powerful and original and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the organ plays an important role. Filsell uses the text imaginatively and his music responds to and enhances the imagery of each individual stanza in an impressive way.

I confess I am still coming to terms with a couple of the pieces. Will Todd has already had a major work, St Cuthbert, recorded on CD (review). His Vasari commission, Angel Song II, is inspired by the idea of angels singing on Christmas night. It begins, not jubilantly, as you might anticipate, but quietly, with the angelic choirs heard as from a distance. Todd says “the music weaves a gentle melody over the aleatoric textures of the accompanying voices.” In fact, the music is hushed throughout – this is about as far as you could get from the angelic “Glorias” in DingDong, Merrily on High! It’s ethereal and atmospheric but I’m not entirely sure if it works as a stand-alone piece. Todd suggests that he might one day incorporate the piece into a much larger one and I think it might just sit more comfortably there as part of a greater whole.

The other work about which I’m unsure about at present is Barrie Bignold’s Peace. I think part of my difficulty stems from the text, specially written by Bob Cassidy. Cassidy’s words are not easily assimilated, at least not by me, and as Bignold says in a note: “This motet is all about the poem.” So far I find this piece the least successful on the disc but that’s a wholly subjective view and one that I may modify with further listening. Already I can say that it contains some eloquent music and the ending is lovely.

As it happens, the final work on the disc, by Ward Swingle, which immediately follows the Bignold, also sets words written specially for the composer to set. However, Tony Vincent Isaacs’ Give us this day is a much more straightforward poem and it has inspired Swingle to write a very simple, direct four-part anthem. The music rarely rises above piano and the little refrain after each verse is beguiling. Though the music may sound simple it clearly needs a fine and sensitive choir to do it well. Happily, with the Vasari Singers on hand there’s no chance that the piece won’t be done justice.

The idea of these Vasari’s jubilee commissions was an imaginative and stimulating concept. I believe that the vision behind it has been vindicated triumphantly and the commissions have inspired some excellent additions to the choral repertory. I hope that enterprising choirs will investigate these pieces for they all merit wider circulation. However, only expert choirs need apply!

There are very useful, short notes on each piece and as you may have gathered from my comments above these are all by the respective composers … with the exception of James MacMillan. Full texts are also provided. The recorded sound is first class.

In summary, this is a most stimulating collection of music and it is hard to imagine that it could be performed better than by Jeremy Backhouse and his superb choir. I congratulate them on their silver jubilee and on the imaginative way in which they have marked it; a way that I hope will benefit other choirs as well. This outstanding CD is already on my shortlist for Recordings of the Year and I recommend it enthusiastically.

John Quinn

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Jonathan DOVE Bless the Lord, O my soul (2000)
Jonathan RATHBONE Absolon, my son (2003)
Will TODD Angel Song II (2004)
Jeremy FILSELL Mysterium Christi (2004)
Humphrey CLUCAS Hear my crying, O God (2004)
Stephen BARLOW When I see on Rood (2004)
Gabriel JACKSON Now I have known, O Lord (2004)
James MACMILLAN Chosen (2003)
Philip MOORE I saw him standing (2004)
Richard BLACKFORD On Another’s Sorrow (2004)
Barrie BIGNOLD Peace (2004)
Ward SWINGLE Give us this day (2004)