orchestral anthems delphian

Orchestral Anthems
Áine Smith (soprano); Ruari Bowen (tenor); William Thomas (bass)
Girl Choristers of Merton College
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Britten Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2022, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London
Texts included
Delphian DCD34291 [55]

This imaginative programme comprises orchestral versions of well-known sacred works. Edward Elgar’s orchestration of Purcell’s Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei came centuries after the composition; Finzi’s and Howells’s works had intervals of a year or less. I cannot be alone in having wondered how some of these works for chorus and organ would sound in full orchestral dress. This is a capable answer.

Most of the orchestrations here met festive occasions of some type, except Sir Edward Bairstow’s Blessed City, heavenly Salem from 1913, one of his best-known and most powerful works. He later orchestrated the organ part for piano and strings. This produces almost a new anthem, thoughtful now rather than grand, with a pastoral quality reminiscent of the composer’s later Five Songs of the Spirit (review). This is a delightful discovery.

Elgar’s Ecce sacerdos magnus (behold a great priest) was his last work for the Roman Catholic rite. Its origins lie in an 1888 episcopal visit to St. George’s Church in Worcester where Elgar was organist. There is reference to Haydn’s Harmoniemesse,but Ecce sacerdos magnus is also notable for demonstrating Elgar’s experiments with coloristic effects, as John Allison points out in his book on Elgar’s church music. The orchestration was written several years later for another episcopal visit, to St. Catherine of Siena Church in Birmingham. It is suitably imposing but perhaps lacks the experimental quality of the organ version.

Besides the Prologue from Elgar’s The Apostles, the only piece here that seems to have been originally thought of in orchestral terms is Herbert Howells’s Behold, O God, our defender, written for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Howells wrote the choral/organ version on Christmas Day 1952, but would certainly have known that it would be performed with orchestra and organ at the coronation. Orchestrated in March 1953, it served as an Introit in the service, and is one of the composer’s most powerful shorter works. It is thrilling to hear it in this form.

A festal event of a different character was the enthronement of Dr. Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928. For that ceremony, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his Te Deum in G, recorded many times in its original version for chorus and organ. Vaughan Williams elevates the text into almost wave-like walls of sound. His friend and former pupil Arnold Foster’s orchestration amplifies the effect. One feels that this is how the piece should be heard.

The remaining works all have festival connections. Gerald Finzi first wrote Lo, the full, final sacrifice as one of the Rev. Walter Hussey’s many commissions for St. Mathew’s, Northampton, and for Chichester Cathedral. It is a setting of two of Richard Crashaw’s Metaphysical poems, written in 1946 and orchestrated in 1947 for that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. Somewhat like Bairstow’s Blessed City, heavenly Salem, the orchestration adds a more pastoral element to Finzi’s original – perhaps not surprising as Finzi studied with Bairstow. The performance is my only quibble with this fine disc: I felt the pastoral element did not come through here.

Geroge Dyson’s Magnificat & Nunc dimitis (Evening Service in D) of 1907 was written early in his career, and quickly made its way into the church repertoire. Much later, in 1935, it was performed by hundreds of singers at the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The then sub-organist of St. Paul’s, Douglas Hopkins, provided the accompaniment. He did so on a large scale, enough to fill St. Paul’s with sound, although parts of the Nunc Dimittis are very gentle, as is to be expected. One is reminded of Stanford’s orchestrations of his own Evening Services (review), and that is praise indeed.

Sir Ivor Atkins, organist and choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral, asked Elgar in 1929 for a    new choral work for that year’s Three Choirs Festival. Elgar was then only composing fitfully. Instead, he orchestrated the accompaniment for Purcell’s Latin motet Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei (Jehovah, how many are my enemies). Purcell wrote it for the private chapel of Mary of Modena, wife of King James II, and scored it for tenor and bass soli, chorus, and continuo (usually performed on the organ). Elgar’s version has full orchestra and organ. It is a tribute to his skill at orchestration that one never loses sight of Purcell’s original, even in modern garb.

The last track also features Elgar – the Prologue to his oratorio The Apostles premiered at the Birmingham Festival of 1903. The work has become a staple of church music even though it was written as part of an oratorio. As Michael Emery points out in his notes, “we have come full circle”.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The two male soloists make an especially good impression in Purcell’s work. Áine Smith is notable in her solo in Bairstow’s piece. As Director of Merton College Choir and founder of the Girl Choristers, Benjamin Nicholas (review ~ review) has complete command of his forces. The upper voice, very beautiful throughout, are augmented in Dyson’s work by the girls’ voices. The male choristers bring the appropriate heft to the pieces by Howells and Vaughan Williams. This is Merton College’s first recording with the Britten Sinfonia. Thanks to the conductor’s leadership, the entire ensemble is first-rate. This is a disc that I know I will be returning to frequently.

William Kreindler

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month June 2023)

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Presto Music

Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1996)
Blessed city, heavenly Salem (1913)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Ecce sacerdos magnus (1888, orch. 1893)
Sir George Dyson (1883-1964) orch. Douglas Hopkins (1902-1992)
Evening Service in D: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1907, orch. 1935)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Behold, O God our defender (1953)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) orch. Edward Elgar
Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei (ca 1680, orch. 1929)
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Lo, the full, final sacrifice (1946, orch. 1947)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Te Deum in G (1928, orch. Arnold Foster)
Sir Edward Elgar
The Spirit of the Lord (1903)