About this Recording
8.572504 - Choral Concert: Vasari Singers - PARRY, H. / STANFORD, C.V. / STAINER, J. / NAYLOR, E.W. / WALTON, W. / HOLST, G. / FINZI, G. (Great British Anthems)

Parry • Stanford • Naylor • Walton • Holst • Finzi


The Vasari Singers has thrived for over thirty years on variety: of repertoire, venue and experience. Alongside our live concerts and recordings, our regular visits to cathedrals to sing the liturgical services in the holiday absences of the regular choir have become a much-loved and key aspect of our music-making and ethos. This recording celebrates some of the great anthems that we have relished performing in the inspiring surroundings of cathedrals throughout the United Kingdom.

Hubert Parry was one of the key, and perhaps most under-rated, figures of the renaissance of British music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If he is best known in some circles for his grander musical utterances (I was glad and Jerusalem), his other choral work also repays exploration and deserves greater recognition: many fine oratorios (the hymn tune Dear Lord and Father is taken from Judith, set to different words), his last composition, the intensely private Songs of Farewell, and the earlier Blest Pair of Sirens. Composed in 1887, Parry sets John Milton’s Ode at a Solemn Music, a reflection of the competing merits of Voice and Verse. It was dedicated to C. V. Stanford and members of The Bach Choir and given its first performance in St James’s Hall on 17 May of that year. It was acclaimed by audience and musicians alike, and has remained firmly in choral repertoires ever since.

Charles Villiers Stanford was pre-eminent during the latter part of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century, as a composer, an educator (he was Professor of Music at Cambridge University from 1887 to 1924 and Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music from 1883), and as a conductor (he directed The Bach Choir for sixteen years from 1886 and was in charge at the Leeds Festival for nine years). As such, he championed the works of many contemporary composers and the list of his pupils reads like a directory of distinguished composers of the period. By all accounts, he was a tough but admired teacher and colleague, though his fiery Irish temper often led to fractious behaviour and quarrels between him and his friends. So it was between Stanford and Parry. In 1917, a difficult forty-year friendship broke down irretrievably when Parry finally tired of Stanford’s arrogant antics. At Parry’s death, the two men had not truly made up. Stanford’s remorse was manifested in musical terms by his setting of the Latin Magnificat for Double Choir in B flat, written just after Parry’s death in 1918 and dedicated to him (translated from the original Latin): “this work, which his death prevented me from handing Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in life, I dedicate to his name in grief”.

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s characterisation of John Stainer—‘he is a genius’—would perhaps not be universally subscribed to today; both Stainer and Sullivan suffer from a widely held reaction against Victorian musical taste. Indeed, Arthur Hutchings suggested “we ought to have sent most of his [Stainer’s] church music to be pulped” and Stainer himself described his own music as “rubbish”. However, in his time Stainer was widely and highly regarded not only as a composer but, arguably more importantly, as an organist and choir-master (primarily at St Paul’s Cathedral where he revolutionised music in the Anglican Church), and scholar/musicologist (Professor of Music at Oxford University and pioneering researcher into the music of Dufay and others). It is perhaps surprising then that his reputation today appears to rest solely on his music: the ubiquitous Passion-tide oratorio The Crucifixion and a handful of church anthems, most well-known of which is I saw the Lord, a setting of verses from Isaiah, chapter 6 which is at times boldly extrovert and then expansively lyrical.

E.W. Naylor’s opera The Angelus won the prestigious Ricordi prize for an English opera in 1907 and was produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in January 1909; so it is perhaps unsurprising that much of Naylor’s music of that period has a distinctly operatic flavour. This is no more apparent than in the anthem, completed on 26 March 1911, Vox Dicentis: Clama. It is full of dramatic gestures and with hushed utterances. A spirited fugue gives way to broad, brass-like exchanges (marked alla tromba), which in turn lead to a more gentle, pastoral conclusion.

In a similar way to the Finzi (see below), Walton’s The Twelve could arguably be described as a miniature Belshazzar’s Feast. It was written in 1965 at the suggestion of Cuthbert Simpson, then Dean of Christ Church Oxford and dedicated to him and that institution. Simpson’s idea was combine the talents of Walton and W.H. Auden: both Oxford-educated and long-term friends, the former arriving at Christ Church as a chorister in 1912 and leaving without a degree in 1920. Walton retained the three-part structure of the poem, creating a heartfelt lament for soprano solo, then duet, as the central section. This is sandwiched first by a declamatory introduction for men’s voices followed by dramatic descriptive segments, and lastly by a joyous fugue of ever-increasing exuberance.

Imogen Holst writes of her father’s Nunc Dimittis: “Holst wrote this previously unpublished [in 1974] Nunc Dimittis in 1915 at the request of Richard Terry, organist of Westminster Cathedral. It was sung liturgically in the Cathedral on Easter Day 1915, but was afterwards forgotten. The original manuscript has disappeared, but a partly-autographed copy is in existence. I have revised this … The first concert performance was given by the BBC Northern Singers, conductor Stephen Wilkinson on 11 June 1974 in Framlingham Church at the 27th Aldeburgh Festival.” The setting, of the Latin text, builds from a muted opening, gradually increasing in volume and speed to a grand and triumphant ‘Amen’.

The Reverend Walter Hussey was a remarkable patron of the Arts during the mid-twentieth century. As Vicar of St Matthew’s Northampton and from 1955 as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, he was committed to commissioning contemporary art. In 1967 he wrote “the product of the artist—of all sorts of artist—can be some of the highest work which is done by human beings, and therefore I think it makes an extraordinarily appropriate symbol of what Man offers to God. I think it’s tremendously important that the contemporary artist should be brought in, in this and every age, to express the truths about God in a contemporary idiom.” The result of this enlightened view is a deeply impressive string of musical masterpieces, sculptures and poetry: Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, Malcolm Arnold’s Laudate Dominum, Walton’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, Rubbra’s The Revival, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice; W.H. Auden’s verse Litany and Anthem for St Matthew’s Day; Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion and Noli me Tangere tapestries; Henry Moore’s 1944 sculpture Madonna and Child; John Piper’s 1966 High Altar Screen; Marc Chagall’s 1978 stained glass window The Arts to the Glory of God—to name but a few. Finzi’s contribution (once described by a music critic of The Times as “a miniature Gerontius”) was dedicated “To the Rev. Walter Hussey and the Organist and Choir of The Church of St Matthew, Northampton, for the Occasion of the 53rd Anniversary of the Consecration of the Church, 21.9.46” and sets verses from Richard Crashaw’s versions of the Hymns of St Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro Te and Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The composer’s treatment of the text is characteristically sensitive and he gives full rein to his most exquisitely refined harmonic language thereby enriching perfectly the poetry’s exploration of the deep significance of Christ’s sacrifice. The final ‘Amen’ is perhaps one of Finzi’s most sublime musical utterances.

© Jeremy Backhouse, 2010

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