About this Recording
8.573427 - Choral Concert: Wells Cathedral School Choralia - CHILCOTT, B. / MEALOR, P. / HOLST, G. / MACMILLAN, J. / O'REGAN, T (The Song of the Stars)

The Song of the Stars
British Music for Upper Voice Choir


In many parts of the world, including Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the USA, music for upper voice choirs is admired for its beauty, purity and expressivity. Following in the footsteps of Holst and Britten, many of the UK’s leading contemporary composers have recently contributed to this genre. Their music for upper voice choirs has been poorly represented on CD and deserves to be accessible to a wider audience. The works recorded here all demonstrate the vast potential of this unique-sounding choral ensemble and the quality of compositions composed for it.

A former member of The Kings Singers, Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) has forged a career as one of the UK’s most prolific composers of choral music. His compositions are characterised by their communicative style, elegant melodies and masterly setting of texts. Equally proficient as a choral conductor and workshop leader, Chilcott has been described by The Observer as ‘a contemporary hero of British Choral Music’. The Song of the Stars was commissioned in 2009 by the Cantamus Girls Choir, under the direction of Pamela Cook and Ann Irons. Cantamus, from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, has been the standard-bearer for British upper voice choirs for almost 50 years.

In The Song of the Stars, Chilcott produces some of his most technically demanding writing for youth choir. The semi-chorus is assigned a repetitive incantation ‘we are the stars which sing’ that calls upon the main choir to enter gently with cluster chords, producing an effect of shimmering light, before the mysteries of the Native American text are illuminated with characteristic vitality.

Paul Mealor (b. 1975) gained international recognition when his anthem Ubi Caritas was performed at the wedding of HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. His compositions have subsequently become part of the repertoire of choirs around the world. Formerly a student at the University of York, Mealor has taught composition at the University of Aberdeen since 2003.

Lux Benigna (‘Lead kindly light’) was written collaboratively with the academic and ordained priest Gordon Graham, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary and formerly at the Universities of Aberdeen and St. Andrew’s in Scotland. Composed in 2007 for six-part choir, it takes the form of a three-stanza hymn to the Trinity. The simplicity of the harmonic movement transmits a little of the mystery of the divine through the purity of its translucent sonorities.

Gustav Holst (1874–1934) will always be remembered for his ever-popular orchestral suite The Planets. However, choral music was consistently a major component of his compositional oeuvre. Even that seminal work concludes with an atmospheric and ethereal, wordless women’s chorus. Inspired in his youth by Bach, Strauss and Wagner, Holst was taught at the Royal College of Music by Stanford. His most significant musical influences were his friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams and his love for, and assimilation of, the British folksong tradition.

Holst’s sublime setting of the Ave Maria was composed in 1900 and was his first published composition. Scored for unaccompanied eight-part choir and dedicated to the memory of his mother, the Ave Maria has many of the characteristics of his later works, demonstrating an incredible gift for counterpoint and voice leading. The noted contemporaneous musicologist Ebenezer Prout observed its ingenuity but also questioned the practicalities of such an ambitious composition for this type of choir: ‘I am afraid…there are very few female choirs good enough to divide into eight parts without coming to grief.’

The Rig Veda is the oldest and most important body of Indian sacred literature. Written in early Sanskrit in c.1500 BC, it forms the basis of classical Hindu belief. Holst’s first exposure to these ancient texts came in 1895 through his wider interest in Hindu philosophy. He soon yearned to set fragments of these texts to music but, disappointed by the lack of poetic beauty in the existing English translations, he later enrolled as a non-matriculated student at University College London to learn the ancient language. The third group of Hymns from the Rig Veda, scored for women’s voices with harp accompaniment, was written in 1910 for Frank Duckworth and his Ladies’ Choir of Blackburn, and have become much-loved cornerstones of the upper voice choral literature. In these four hymns, Holst seeks not to replicate the oriental sounds that might be expected but to build an evocative sonic landscape that resonates with the mysterious nature of the sacred texts.

James MacMillan (b. 1959) has forged a reputation as one of the world’s leading contemporary composers. His works are profoundly influenced by his Scottish heritage and strong Catholic faith. His choral compositions range from simple liturgical settings, for use by amateur church choirs, to extremely technically challenging music more suitable for performance by leading professional ensembles. MacMillan’s unique musical language remains innovative and contemporary, whilst also communicating directly to the listener, aided by its grounding in Gregorian chant and Celtic folk music.

Commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus in 2012, MacMillan’s Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva preserves the narrative structure of this medieval English annunciation carol. The refrain, from which the piece receives its title, is translated as ‘News! News! Ave is formed from Eve’. ‘Ave’ in this instance is believed to refer to the Angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin Mary, ‘Ave Maria’. Many medieval texts use this device (Ave is the reverse of Eva—the Latin spelling of Eve) to represent Mary’s obedience, reversing the fate of mankind after Eve’s disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit.

The poet Michael Symmons Roberts has collaborated with James MacMillan on a number of projects, including two BBC Proms commissions and The Sacrifice for Welsh National Opera. With a text taken from Roberts’ collection Her Maker’s Maker, New-made for a King was commissioned for the Farnham Youth Choir in 2012. The final section is particularly striking, with wordless choral parts and increasingly tonally ambiguous piano writing reflecting on the future death of this child and our abuse of His perfect creation.

Born in London in 1978, Tarik O’Regan now divides his time between New York City and Cambridge. Acclaimed by the Gramophone as ‘one of the leading British composers of his generation’, O’Regan has been recognised with two GRAMMY® nominations and two British composer awards. Recent successes include his opera Heart of Darkness, premiered at the Royal Opera House, and a project for Sydney Dance Company, Scattered Rhymes.

Drawing its primary material from Hildegard von Bingen’s sequence, Columba aspexit was premiered by The Hildegard Choir of Oxford in 2000 and was a prizewinner in the Concours Europeen pour Choeurs et Maitrises de Cathedrales, 2001. A Light exists in Spring was commissioned by the Methodist College Belfast, and is a setting of a poem by the American poet, Emily Dickinson. The clear first light of spring described in the opening stanza is given a religious context in this poem, as a phenomenon that cannot be explained adequately by science and which requires faith to comprehend it. A short choral fanfare, Alleluia, laus et gloria was commissioned by the BBC for the Pro Musica Girls’ Choir of Hungary, recipients of the champion’s Silver Rose Bowl at ‘Let the Peoples Sing’ in 2003.

Winner of the 2014 British Composer Award for Choral Music, Cecilia McDowall (b.1951) studied composition with Joseph Horovitz, Adam Gorb and Robert Saxton. She has been commissioned by the BBC Singers, The City of London Sinfonia and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and has been described by International Record Review as possessing ‘a communicative gift that is very rare in modern music’.

Regina Caeli is the third in a set of Latin motets originally composed for the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir in April 2004. It is therefore the only work on this recording to pre-exist in a mixed-voice version, the arrangement recorded here being completed in 2013. It is a rhythmically complex and ebullient setting of this great Marian antiphon, which dates from the twelfth century and was traditionally recited after Vespers during the liturgical season of Easter.

Sir John Tavener (1944–2013) was one of the great figures of British cultural life. His career spanned five decades, during which his compositional style morphed, from one that placed him at the forefront of the European avant-garde movement, to deeply pious religious works that were characterised by their minimalism and humanism. Tavener was a devout convert to the Orthodox faith, whose music was profoundly influenced by the ritual and spirituality of this ancient religion. His later sacred compositions incorporated elements of Islam and Hinduism but, throughout, he maintained the desire to communicate an understanding of (heavenly) beauty and universal truth.

Ikon of Saint Hilda sets words by Mother Thekla, described in the Gramophone as Tavener’s ‘librettist, counsellor, spiritual mother and even commercial adviser’. The text is a tribute to the seventeenth-century abbess and scholar, Saint Hilda, who had been leader of monasteries for both monks and nuns. The Ikon of Saint Hilda was commissioned in 1998 for the Girls’ Choir of Wakefield Cathedral. Θεοτόκε was first performed by the Moscow Youth Choir at Middle Temple Hall in London in October 2001. The Greek word Θεοτόκε is translated as ‘God-bearer’, and the repeated use of this single word throughout the piece acts as an invocation to the Mother of God. The a cappella Agnus Dei is taken from Tavener’s Missa Brevis: a work for treble voices and organ that is dedicated to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, it received its first performance in Westminster Cathedral in 2005.

James Whitbourn (b. 1963) studied at Magdalen College Oxford before working at the BBC as a producer, composer, conductor and presenter. He is currently Honorary Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House Oxford. His musical compositions span choral, film and television genres. One of his most significant works, Annelies, a choral setting of The Diary of Anne Frank, was recently recorded by Westminster Williamson Voices (Naxos 8.573070), and a recording of his shorter choral works for chamber choir, Luminosity (Naxos 8.572103), was recorded by the superb Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio in 2010. Festival Alleluia is a celebratory work that is propelled forward on a wave of excitement created by the flamboyant piano part, whilst the choir sings increasingly triumphant exclamations.

Christopher Finch

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