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Jonathan E. Dimmock
The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, April 2011

Many of us can recall when the anthems and the congregational mass setting of Healey Willan (1880–1968) were standard fare in the American Episcopal Church. Most especially in the middle of the twentieth century, Willan’s voice seemed to embody everything that Anglican music enjoyed: refinement, nothing in excess, simplicity, elegance, mystery, and most especially, beauty. After hearing this recording, you’ll want to be the first line to re-establish Willan’s music as standard fare for the next generations of Episcopalians.

Of his 787 compositions, this disc contains a mere eighteen, ten motets (both accompanied and unaccompanied), one mass setting (Missa Brevis No. XI), as well as four hymn settings (St Osmund, Lässt uns erfreuen, Picardy, and O quanta qualia). The twenty-two singers of the Elora Festival Singers embody the Anglican ethos to perfection. The blend, the tone, the vowels, the nuances, the passion, the understatement, all work together to create a sheen that makes you anxious to hear their every note. It takes approximately ten seconds to understand why this ensemble is acclaimed as one of the world’s finest professional chamber choirs. Based in Canada, the group is recognized for its rich sound and clarity of texture. Predominantly singing non-vibrato, one doesn’t really notice whether they’re using vibrato or not because all of our attention is pointed toward the text and the musical shape of each phrase. Sublime.

Conductor Noel Edison founded the ensemble in 1980 (at the age of twenty-two) and was recently nominated for a GRAMMY® award. Organist Matthew Larkin also does a stellar job. Recorded at St John’s Church, Elora, Canada, my only complaint about this truly stellar recording is that there is no information about the organ. But this is minor compared to the beauty of the singing. There is much to learn from Mr Willan and his able champion, Mr Edison.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, January 2007

This disc is a collection of hymns, anthems, and motets, along with a Missa brevis, by the Canadian composer and organist Healey Willan. Willan was born in 1880 in England, but came to Canada in 1913 and remained there for the rest of his life, identifying himself as a Canadian "by adoption." He died in Toronto in 1968.

Willan's writing for vocal forces is both natural and skillful, and his music is deeply felt. Any six or seven of the 18 tracks as a group are beautiful. All 18 taken together at one sitting, though, turn into a rather unvarying, and even monochromatic, experience. Virtually all the music is slow moving (it was written for church performance), and after a while one longs for some angles, some drama, and tautness.

Still, listened to perhaps 20 minutes at a sitting, the experience is likely to be satisfying. Willan's voice is a conservative one, and his music will likely appeal to those who respond to, for instance, John Rutter (although I think there is more variety of musical grammar in Rutter's work).

These are loving and skillful performances. The Elora Festival Singers comprise a Canadian group deserving of much praise for the care and depth of feeling with which they sing Willan's music. They manage a very wide and subtly graded range of dynamics and colors. Approached in the right way, this disc is capable of bringing real pleasure.

Marc Rochester
Gramophone, November 2006

Choral works from a British émigré that show his lifelong love of the voice

The Elora Festival Singers have already recorded discs for Naxos of English cathedral anthems and Arvo Part (see page 106), so one devoted to Canadian music is overdue. True, Healey Willan was English by birth, but after emigrating to Canada at the age of 33, he quickly became the leading light in Canadian church music. Hearing such sympathetic and perceptive performances of this small but representative cross-section of his vast output, it's easy to see why. From the majestic, nine-minute In the Heavenly Kingdom to a simple hymn-tune (St Osmond), Willan reveals a gift for writing appealing and perfectly proportioned music for a wide variety of choirs. The ghost of Stanford is evident not just in the obvious practicality of the music itself but in his use of established melodies as the basis for "hymn-anthems". Basically undemanding, these nevertheless show real inventiveness; a characteristic which the Elora Festival Singers manage to emphasise without any hint of "singing down" to what is, at heart, technically undemanding music aimed at amateur choirs.

Ever attentive to detail, Noel Edison draws from his singers immaculate diction, beautifully moulded phrases and a real richness of tone, most superbly displayed in a luminous Sun of Righteousness and a wonderfully warm, glowing How they so softly rest. Joseph Schnurr is the gloriously resourceful and compelling tenor soloist in the dramatic I looked, and behold a white cloud, and here, as elsewhere, Matthew Larkin's organ accompaniments are perfectly tailored. All in all a disc which, in both musical content and performance, makes a thoroughly welcome addition to the catalogue.

Margaret Mc Namara
FM Program Guide, September 2006

The lives of Gerald Finzi and Healy Willan coincided in the first half of the twentieth century, though Willan's life span was much longer than Finzi's. They were born in England and were both musicians whose compositions enriched the field of vocal, choral and sacred music. Finzi remained in England all his life, known as a master of song writing and the founder of the Newbury String Players, while Willan, when he was thirty­three, moved to Canada and became the leading Canadian church musician of his time.

These discs of their music provide distinctly individual listening experiences and there is no intention to make any comparisons here. Gerard Finzi's links music and literature while Healy Willan's reflects his career as a church organist and choirmaster and is mainly hymns and anthems. It is interesting to know that Finzi early acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of English poetry and literature and, because of sadness and loss in his own young life he was attracted to the poems of Thomas Hardy, writing musical settings for many of them. The first and longer work on the CD Intimations of Immortality resulted from the great appeal that Wordsworth's Ode from Recollections of Early Childhood had for him - its ideas, its imagery and its poetic rhythms. He began to compose his Opus 29 in the late 1930's, was interrupted by the war, and did not finish it until 1950. Listening to this may send you back to the Romantic poets if you were fortunate enough to be introduced to them in your youth! It is certainly rewarding to have the Ode beside you and to read as you listen. The tenor James Gilchrist and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra are well suited to realize Finzi's musical response to the poet's feelings. The St Cecilia's Day Festival Committee commissions a fresh commemorative ode each year and in 1947 Finzi asked the poet Edmund Blunden (one of the War Poets of World War 1) to collaborate, with the aim of having "the music grow out of the actual words and not just fitted to them" (Finzi's idea). The resulting For Saint Cecilia

Opus 30 is a ceremonial ode honouring Music's patron saint, noting other saints and paying homage to composers of the past, all to Finzi's melodious and inspiring setting. In the Heavenly Kingdom is an apt title for the CD of Willan's church music. There is one Missa Brevis No XI (tracks 6-9), the most complex of fourteen generally simple masses that he wrote. They are regarded by many people as "the heart and soul" of his church music. The hymns and anthems are possibly more widely known, written for church choirs of several denominations and for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. They include simple hymns for small parish choirs and grander works with elaborate organ accompaniments. The chamber choir chosen to present Willan's music, Elora Festival Singers, is known in North America for performing a wide range of music and, directed by Noel Edison, a highly regarded church organist and conductor, they most ably perform the carefully chosen works. Elora is in Ontario, west of Toronto, and Edison is co-founder of the Elora Festival which has conducted twenty­five annual seasons, each A Celebration in Song. Listening to this CD is an opportunity to make a musical visit to The Heavenly Kingdom in Canada.

David Vernier, September 2006

Anyone who's sung a Healey Willan anthem or motet or Mass knows and appreciates this composer's consummate mastery of vocal writing and, most importantly, his understanding of the unique possibilities of the "choral voice" for imparting the meaning of a text, giving impressionistic imagery to a phrase with just a bit of perfectly chosen color or texture or voicing. He has an exquisite sense of integrating melody with harmony so that every line sings like a melody, and at any given moment every note is crucial to the harmonic function and effect. Especially in his a cappella motets, the phrases--often irregular--breathe and flow naturally; and no one can say Willan didn't know how to construct great endings, even for his shortest, simplest pieces.

This fine recording gathers a wide range of Willan's church music, from the popular hymn-anthems on "Ye watchers and ye holy ones", "Picardy", and "O quanta qualia", to various shorter a cappella motets and longer accompanied ones, to the beautiful Missa brevis No. XI. With the anthem I looked, and behold a white cloud, for choir, tenor soloist, and organ, Willan provides a tasteful, tuneful, and eloquently expressive alternative to overwrought examples of the genre by more celebrated composers such as Stanford and Mendelssohn. With his Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae (one of 14 Willan settings of the Missa brevis) Willan offers a perfect gem combining richly colored choral writing with clear, warmly sensitive explication of the texts, the technique owing at least something to Palestrina. Unlike many strictly functional Mass settings--and at seven minutes, this one is exceptionally functional!--this one imparts liturgical meaning while holding its listeners in thrall to its musical beauty. This was an excellent repertoire choice by Noel Edison and his Elora Festival Singers, for it's an outstanding example of Willan's considerable talent and it's one of the finest settings of the Missa brevis you'll ever hear.

Which brings us to the choir. Ontario's Elora Festival Singers and director Noel Edison should be declared national treasures by the Canadian government. The artistic care and professionalism that they commit to every project are exemplary, and there's no doubt that Healey Willan could have no finer advocates than these outstanding musicians (and there are many strong contenders for that honor among Canada's unrivalled and impressive cadre of choral ensembles!). If you haven't heard Willan, this is a great introduction. And if you have, you should know that the disc's final track, the beloved motet Rise up, my love, my fair one, is without question its ideal recorded realization, the thing that proves that Edison and his choir really understand what Willan is about and know how to bring his uniquely expressive choral forms to life. And it's reason enough to own this CD, a performance so sure and lovely that you want to hear it again and again.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, August 2006

Recordings of the works of Healey Willan seem to come in spurts. In 1982 there was the entry in the Anthology of Canadian Music series, which contained sixteen of his pieces. In the mid-nineties EMI of Canada produced several records of his church music, two of them with his own Choir of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Priory Records has recorded three of his settings of the Evening Canticles in their Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis series. Now Naxos seems to have started a new wave with their CD of Anthony Wedd playing Willan organ works and this record of his sacred music (as well as the four works on their previous album Faire Is the Heaven). Let us hope that Naxos will continue with more recordings of this composer who registers - if you'll pardon the expression - with most listeners as the composer of a few liturgical works and Christmas pieces and an organ prelude or two. In fact he wrote in every musical form imaginable.

Willan wrote more than a few sacred works, hundreds in fact, ranging from fauxbourdons and hymn tunes to large-scale choral/orchestral works. One liturgical type he was fond of was the hymn-anthem, writing a number of them for both Anglican and Lutheran use. This disc contains three of the later Anglican ones; the first starts off as a straightforward setting of the tune, but develops into quite a sophisticated piece on Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones (Lasst uns erfreuen). The Elora Festival Singers handle this very well and really fill St. John’s church. Slightly earlier in date are the hymn-anthems on the tunes Picardy and O Quanta Qualia. The first is not especially interesting, but the second is much more impressive with wide harmonic spacing that the Singers have a great time with. Willan also wrote a Hymn Anthem on St. Osmond, but on this disc we have his own tune for the hymn and a fine one it is. The composer’s ability to write simply but not cloyingly is evident here.

Willan also wrote "original" anthems - more than thirty. The four performed by the Elora Festival Singers take in a range from when Willan was 27 up to the O Praise the Lord of 1963, written when he was 83. The earliest anthem and earliest piece on the disc is I looked, and behold a white cloud, written six years before Willan emigrated to Canada. This shows Willan still under the spell of the great Victorians, but is well constructed. The Festival Singers bring out all its best aspects. The anthem that gives its name to this recording was begun in 1924, but never completed - Willan would sometimes begin a new piece rather than finish an old one. In this case the composer and Willan-biographer F.R.C. Clarke completed it in 1979. Noel Edison gets a full, ceremonial sound out of this anthem, although the organ tends to be over-reverberant. The piece itself is somewhat uneven, but the second section and Clarke’s Alleluias are very moving. Willan’s wide harmonies are again a prominent feature. Christ hath a garden was written for the resources of a rural parish rather than St. Mary Magdalen. It is very forthright and with a simple organ part, but Willan does not leave out some typical play with the bass. Very different is O praise the Lord, written for the Anglican Congress of 1963. This is perhaps the most complex work on the CD - there are a wide variety of textures, which are mirrored in the work’s construction, leading to a thrilling finale.

Many of Willan’s church works were written for St. Mary Magdalene. Prominent among these are the fourteen settings of the Missa Brevis (no Credo) that Willan wrote between 1928 and 1963. These were written so as not to impede the flow of the service and are not only brief, but written for unison voices and with individual sections bound to each other by simple motifs. The Missa Brevis No. XI (Mass of St. John the Baptist) is the most complex of the fourteen, but contains the same basic features as the rest. The Elora Festival Singers are well suited to this music. One hates to use the term "angelic voices" but in the Sanctus and the Benedictus this term really applies to their performance. The acoustic at St. John’s in Elora adds to the performance, almost as if Willan had known the church when writing this piece. It may be said that the key to performing Willan’s church music is to balance the mystical and the simple. Noel Edison and the Festival Singers get that precise balance in the first three sections of this mass. The Agnus Dei is somewhat more sophisticated than the previous sections, but the performers maintain the high level of the earlier sections and in the final statement of the Agnus Dei exceeds what has come before.

With all of the masses and anthems mentioned above we should not think that Willan neglected the motet as a form. Indeed he wrote more of them than almost any other sacred type. There are a number on this disc, both liturgical and otherwise. Willan saw the motet as a more intimate form of religious expression than the anthem and many of his motets are if not small in feeling, brief and hushed in their atmosphere. The earliest motet on this disc is the O How Glorious of 1924. This was written when Willan had settled in to his post at St. Mary Magdalene and was seeking to give the words more emphasis in the sacred music that he wrote. This brief antiphon is beautifully sung, especially by the ladies of the Festival Chorus, who again are helped by the acoustic of the church.

O how Glorious is followed by three of the eleven Liturgical Motets written mostly in the ’thirties. These works show the composer’s increased harmonic skill and the perfection of the previously-mentioned balance between simplicity and mystic awe. Among the three are what is probably Willan’s best-known choral work, Rise up my love, written in 1929, which is indeed a masterpiece of simplicity and reverence. Yet the other two motets from the series recorded here: Preserve us, O Lord and O King all Glorious are both equally worthy of attention. They demonstrate the same simple, almost childlike sincerity combined with great polyphonic ability and almost Russian "choral orchestration" - Willan was very fond of Russian church music - but above all melodic ability. The earlier How They Softly Rest shows that even before his style had crystallized Willan knew a great deal about how to get the maximum sound from even the smallest choir. This is also seen in the remaining works on the disc.

Those who are familiar with the above-mentioned Willan records from Canadian EMI, especially the two under Robert Hunter Bell in St. Mary Magdalene itself will find the Elora sound to be to be a lighter, fleeter one than they are used to. St. John’s Church also reflects more of the sound than St. Mary Magdalen, which produces a less compelling effect. But the Elora Festival Singers can match those at St. Mary’s in terms of their commitment to the music and in the sense of reverence, almost awe that they bring to many of the works on this disc. Noel Edison excels in the antiphonal and divided parts of Willan’s works, but all the works receive the attention they deserve. He is ably assisted by Mathew Larkin. An additional plus about this disc are the liner notes by Gavin Bryant, Willan’s successor at St. Mary Magdalene and author of the Healey Willan Catalogue.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2006

It should be little surprise to Willan and Elora-Edison watchers that this is so conspicuously successful a disc. A previous Naxos disc from the Elora forces, one of Canada’s very finest, was Faire is the Heaven which brought us Willan’s Marian motets as well as rare things from the pens of Gordon Slater, Imant Raminsh, Bryan Kelly and Sydney Campbell among others (see reviews by GH, JP and JQ). And that was a splendid conspectus, sung with great warmth yet clarity. If appetites were whetted for more Willan they have been handsomely met with this release.

Taking in the important Missa Brevis and Willan’s “greatest hit”, Rise up, my love, my fair one, we find in between these twin poles hymn-anthems and motets of varying sizes. In the heavenly kingdom opens and closes with grand and expressive power. The performance throughout demonstrates the strengths of the choir - clean, clear with a certain purity about it and with a fine blend. Willan’s music always sounds graceful and even when it makes powerful demands, as it certainly does with its high tessitura in Sun of righteousness, it possesses the great gift of unselfconscious melodic distinction - as in his hymn St Osmund.

There are impressionistic moments here and there, passing phrases which may remind one of, say, Delius. And there are some moments but much briefer in which one feels the weight of the Russian tradition - that’s certainly my feeling as I listened to the basses in the Hymn-Anthem Ye watchers and ye holy ones, a performance notable for the well calibrated weight of choral tone and the highly secure intonation of all voice types.

There are times when Willan consciously evokes earlier sonorities - he does so in O King all glorious - but such moments are relatively rare. Throughout we hear how expertly he judges the climax of a piece, how supremely he sculpts lines and there can surely be no finer example of this than the Anthem on Picardy, which grows with inexorable directness. That he can end with beatitude is shown in Christ hath a garden. And his capacity to be all embracing in these settings - archaic, yet timeless - is best invoked by his O praise the Lord, which builds to a joyful climax through the most acute and perceptive word setting and control of vocal nuances.

There’s really not a negative word to be said about either performances or works. The notes by Giles Bryant - who was responsible for the Willan B numbers listed next to the opus numbers - tell you all you need to know. And with first-rate sound in St John’s Church in Elora you have a first-call Willan collection.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group