lord's my shepherd acis

The Lord’s My Shepherd
Francis Segger (treble)
Jeremy Filsell (piano, organ)
Charles Johnson (trumpet)
rec. 2022, Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City
Acis APL54346 [63]

At first glance this might appear to be one of those “voice of an angel” collections.  But the listener will look in vain for any wings of doves or Lloyd-Webber Pie Jesu.  Instead there is a really well planned and varied programme of in the main unusual, but all interesting music.  I imagine credit for this must go the choirmaster and organist of St Thomas Church New York, Jeremy Filsell.  As the liner notes, Filsell is one of that relatively rare breed, a performer whose discography includes recordings of virtuoso repertoire for both organ and piano – a skill he amply demonstrates on this disc.  What I had not realised was that Filsell has been based in the USA since 2008 and took up the post of choirmaster at St Thomas in 2019.  The boy treble at the centre of this disc is Francis Segger who at the time of this recording in 2022 was one of the Head Choristers of the choir.  Worth mentioning too that the choristers of St Thomas attend a purpose built school for their standard education alongside their choral training so they are immersed in the music and traditions of the Anglican Church.

Given the transient nature of a boy treble’s voice any disc like this is primarily going to serve as a first and last record of their voice.  No surprise that Segger sings beautifully and has clearly been very well trained by Filsell and the St Thomas staff.  The repertoire chosen is not just interesting and apt in its own right but it showcases Segger’s voice well.  Likewise the engineering of the disc recorded in the ample and generous acoustic of St. Thomas achieves a very good balance between voice and piano/organ.  Three of the works add a solo trumpet here played by Charles Johnson.  All of those sound beautiful and again have been integrated effectively and believably into the overall soundstage.

If there is an issue, it is the same one that confronts all such collections – not the technical execution of these solos but rather the interpretative insights.  Segger is unsurprisingly more at home in the more recent music which has a populist idiom or grateful melodic line.  The aria Blute nur, du liebers Herz! [track 2] from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion while beautifully sung lacks the expressive subtleties that age and experience would no doubt bring.  Also there can be a sense of a very conscious placing of the voice with Segger focusing more on tone production than either the meaning or intent behind the words.  He is not the first singer to sacrifice the clarity that consonants can bring in favour of comfortingly round vowels.  In repertoire terms the disc starts strongly with the aforementioned Bach bookended by Geoffrey Burgon’s beautiful Nunc Dimittis and the disarmingly heart-breaking Lili Boulanger Pie Jesu.  Burgon’s setting in English was the counter-intuitively famous theme for the BBC’s Television adaption of the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy.  This proved so popular that on its initial broadcast in 1979 the soundtrack performance made it into the pop charts.  The Boulanger is one of the great settings of this text.  Originally this was set for organ, string quartet and harp and was the last work the dying Boulanger completed by dictating to her sister Nadia before succumbing to tuberculosis aged just twenty four.  The liner notes that this might have been intended as part of a complete setting of the Requiem Mass.  The performance against which all others must be judged was sung by Alain Fauqueur from the late 1950’s using the original accompaniment.  There is a vulnerability and vocal fragility, a genuine sense of pleading for everlasting rest that makes that performance near definitive.  Filsell/Segger use the sanctioned organ-only alternative which is fine but lacks the extra flecks of colour harp and quartet inevitably bring.  Again no doubt Segger sings well but rather plainly albeit this is far prefereable to Roberto Alagna’s wholly inappropriate hale-and-hearty tenor version on EMI/Warner.

The liner mentions that the St Thomas choir enjoys singing the Ned Rorem set of songs presented here – and I suspect this is true of William Bradley Roberts’ Little Lamb who made thee? too.  Therein might lay a clue as to why these songs receive more comfortable/wholly successful performances.  Perhaps because they are more “sung in” and familiar Segger is able to simply sing them rather than to think too hard about how to sing them.  I must admit to knowing little of Rorem’s choral/church music so its inclusion is very welcome.  Especially since during his lifetime Rorem was associated with St. Thomas.  Before the selection of four songs Filsell plays three solos from Rorem’s Organ Book 1; Serenade, Episode and Reveille.  Not only do these work beautifully in their own right but the sensibly break-up the aural monotony that any such treble-only recital can risk.  The first two pieces are both sub two minute miniatures played with exactly the right gently meditative expressive freedom that is very touching.  The longer [3:35] Reveille allows Filsell to show his virtuosic prowess but also the fine organ in the church.  Curiously the liner makes no mention of what the organ is.  The church website here lists no fewer than six organs plus a Steinway piano although there is no indication which organ is used here.  For the Rorem songs Filsell moves to the piano and again his accompaniments are a model of sensitivity.  The simplicity and clarity of the writing for both keyboard and voice suits this kind of unadorned youthful voice very well – and the third song What if some little pain [track 10] shows just how well Segger can sing.  He also makes commendably light work of the demanding virtuosic Allelia that completes the set.

Filsell stays on piano for the next four works.  The Red Dragonfly (Akaombo) is a Japanese Children’s song written by Kosaku Yamada and arranged by Grayston Ives.  Again Segger sounds more comfortable in this lyrical idiom – and again the wide ranging vocal line makes considerable technical demands which he copes with well.  Not my favourite tem but well performed for sure.  Bax’s A Christmas Carol is a genuine rarity and any recording of it is welcome.  This is quite an early work – the manuscript dated “Christmas 1909” but Bax thought well enough of it to make it one of the Three Songs for Voice and Orchestra in 1914.  As far as I know the orchestral version has never been commercially recorded.  But it does give a sense of the scale and performing style Bax had in mind.  Certainly the version recorded by soprano Patricia Wright as part of a Bax song recital on Continuum emphasises the drama of the work.  The performance choices/styles are so different as to make a comparison all but pointless – with Segger emphasising the naive joy in the Nativity and Wright the visionary ardour.

John Dankworth’s Light of the World is another very effective artless song set in a slightly populist idiom but one that never becomes trite or superficial.  Again I have a sense that this is a song Segger knows from previous performing experience and enjoys.  Perhaps the real gem of this collection is Alan Ridout’s Songs of Advent.  This is a miniature cycle of six songs that last a total of just 8:16.  The modern texts by Paul Wigmore (1925-2014) act almost as meditations on the liturgical hours from the opening dark of night through dawn/salvation to the full light of Morning.  There is a direct simplicity to these settings that play to Segger’s strengths with Ridout’s writing that is essentially simple yet also strikingly powerful.  Another good piece of programming sees Filsell return to the organ console with two Ridout organ solos as a kind of coda to the cycle.  These are two of the Six Studies for Organ – Toccatina and Scherzo.  The former is a playful 0:53 while the 1:26 Scherzo is celebratory and uplifting.

Trumpeter Charles Johnson joins Filsell for the instrumental In paradisum by Charles Callahan.  Callahan subtly incorporates the original Gregorian plainchant into the work.  Apparently originally written for flute or violin it certainly sounds very effective in this trumpet version with Johnson’s gently expressive playing very impressive.  Again, this makes for an excellent interlude in this primarily vocal collection.  The disc is completed with three final works for voice and organ.  Malcolm Archer’s arrangement of the Brother James’ Air again finds Segger sounding a little more self conscious and less relaxed than in some of the earlier pieces.  Johnson joins again for the trumpet counterpoint in Handel’s Eternal source of light divine from the Ode for Queen Anne’s birthday.  Here Segger sounds less than wholly comfortable with the baroque ornamentation – this is a glorious piece that is a little beyond him at this stage of his singing development.  Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land is familiar to Anglican congregations in its hymn-melody form Dear Lord and Father of mankind.  This is another example of just what a fine melody with beautiful accompanying harmonies Charles Parry could write.  The original was written for the oratorio Judith so the words are quite different from the hymn setting.  In the original form it makes for a thoughtful and rather touching conclusion to this well-planned recital. 

Certainly treble Francis Segger can be justly proud of his achievements here and Jeremy Filsell has to take great credit for his skilled programming and attentive sensitive accompanying.  The booklet is adequate – all texts in English only are included – composer details and information on some of the works seems at best abbreviated or actually omitted (neither the Rorem or Ridout organ solos are written about at all which is a shame I think).  As mentioned, perhaps some detail about the organ(s) used would have been interesting as well.  Unsurprisingly, some items are more completely successful than others but this remains a valuable document not just of this talented young performer but also of the repertoire he sings.

Nick Barnard

Availability: Acis Productions

Geoffrey Burgon (1941-2010)
Nunc Dimitis
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Blut nur, du liebes Herz! (St. Matthew Passion)
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Pie Jesu
William Bradley Roberts (b.1947)
Little lamb who made thee?
Ned Rorem (1923 – 2022)
Selections from Organ Book 1: Serenade, Episode, Reveille
Selected Songs: Love, Little Elegy, What if some little pain, Alleluia
Kosaku Yamada (1886 -1965) arr. Grayston Ives (b. 1948)
The Red Dragonfly (Akatombo)
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
A Christmas Carol
John Dankworth (1927-2010)
Light of the World
Alan Ridout (1934 – 1996)
Songs of Advent
Six Studies for Organ: Toccatina, Scherzo
Charles Callahan (b. 1951)
In paradisum
James Leith Macbeith Bain (c.1840 – 1925)  
Brother James’ Air (arr. Malcolm Archer)
George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759)
Eternal source of Light Divine (Ode for the birthday of Queen Anne)
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 – 1918)
Long since in Egypt’s plenteous Land (Judith)