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James Carson
Fanfare, June 2007

The 12 numbers recorded here give a pretty comprehensive view of the composer's span of style and texture, ranging from straightforward and small-scale four-part works to more imposing eight-part scores. Three of the 12 are world-premiere recordings, including the unassumingly appealing "The shepherd-men" and the notably evocative and moving "The night is come," on a text of Sir Thomas Browne.

The general standard of choral blend and balance here is quite high, though one can on rare occasions detect vibrato or intonation getting just the teensiest bit out of control. In any case, conductor Byram- Wigfield is at no pains to reproduce the stereotypical "white" British men-and-boys sound; this choir is clearly a team of like-minded human beings. From the mournful setting of "The days of man are but as grass" in Praise the Lord, O my soul to the exuberance of the "burning Seraphins" in Faire is the heav'n, their engagement with the work at hand is total.

Organist Roger Judd's accompaniments are solid but never overpowering—in which respect, judging from the program notes, he may well be consciously following Doc H's own example. The said notes, by sometime-Harris-student Alastair Sampson, are exemplary for both biographical and musical detail. Engineering, too, is ideal, providing a recording acoustic that's commendably spacious but not the least bit muddy.


American Record Guide, June 2007

What more appropriate place to record the music of Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973) than St George's Chapel of Windsor Castle? His tenure there—following appointments at such Anglican bastions as New College Oxford and Christ Church Cathedral—ran close to three decades. Closely involved with two coronations and other royal occasions, he even served as music tutor to Princess Elizabeth­—now the Queen.

While I've happily sung several of these mostly organ-supported anthems and motet, I don't claim Harris as one of my favorite Anglican composers. His music is subtle and skillfully built, often graced with ingenious key-shifts and fascinating harmonic explorations. But it lacks melodic invention and has more than a hint of stuffy Victorian stodginess to it, a la Stanford, Parry, and Herbert Brewer. Still, it is full of spiritual conviction and reverence; and his organ accompaniments are especially refined.

This respectable collection of 12 pieces includes three world premiere recordings ('The Night is Come', 'The Shepherd-men' and 'I Said to the Man') in addition to his acknowledged masterpieces: 'Faire is the Heav'n' and 'Bring us, O Lord God'. Along with those, I particularly enjoyed the a cappella intricacies of 'Love of Love and Light of Light and the fiery intensity of 'From a Heart Made Whole'.

This is a nicely sung album, though I can’t rank the choir among the very finest of its kind. While it may be partly the fault of their home chapel’s acoustics or the way they’re recorded, the boys often sound strident, and their overall sound is somewhat compressed. Touching notes from one of Harris's former choristers and full texts complete a package that English sacred buffs and Anglican choirmasters will definitely want—especially since it appears to be the only one currently available devoted entirely to his music.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Sir William Henry Harris is best known for his Faire is the Heaven, one of the foremost of 20th century anthems and also for his Bring us, O Lord God and Strengthen ye the weak hands. There are also numerous other choral and organ works.

Sir William served in a number of posts before settling in 1933 at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor where he was in charge for almost three decades. This disc is the latest in the Naxos English Choral Music series and was recorded at St. George’s Chapel with the present Director, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, and the estimable Roger Judd as organist.

In addition to the three well-known works mentioned above this disc includes six of the lesser-known ones and three others which have never been recorded. The first of these, The Shepherd-Men is a simple carol and proves that the composer - known to his choristers as Doc H - is quite a change from the eight-part complicated works with which “Doc H” is associated. The text of I said to the man is remembered for its use by George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast. Harris sets the text in an unusual, awkward style that  at first seems inappropriate to the poem but shows the composer in his late-eighties still experimenting. Also unusual for Harris is his setting of Swinburne’s From a Heart Made Whole, which seems never to settle into its home-key of G-major or any other. While I found all of these works interesting their first appearance on disc may owe something to the fact that none of them is typical Harris.

Of the other, better-known pieces, the best performances are towards the end of the disc. The torturous and rather strange From a heart made whole is given an extremely convincing performance, as is the famous Bring us, O Lord God. Here the middle voices sing with total control and beautiful blend. Byram-Wigfield leads the choir to an intense coda in the latter that is the highpoint of the disc. The Greek Orthodox inspired O joyful light is sung a little slowly for my taste, but the overall conception is imaginative. Unfortunately the acoustic breaks up right before the end. This happens with two or three other pieces as well. Another problem is that the conductor takes O hearken thou and Strengthen ye the weak hands at a rather plodding pace which makes for stateliness but not excitement. Better led are King of glory, which evolves beautifully and Love of Love, with a well-performed end.

Overall this is a successful disc, though with the conducting caveats mentioned above. While there are many recordings of individual Harris anthems, the only competition for a complete Harris disc is that of the Exon Singers on ASV 1015 from 1997. About half the anthems on the Naxos disc are replicated here, although obviously none of the first time recordings. The Exon Singers disc also has several of Harris’s best organ works and the acoustic of the Tonbridge School Chapel is less intrusive than that prevailing in St. George’s Chapel. On the other hand the Naxos disc features the choir and location for which these pieces were written and is sung more idiomatically, if less excitingly than by Exon. In addition it has the imaginative and fluent playing of Roger Judd, long-time soloist of Saint George’s Chapel and a powerful musical entity in his own right. So, to recommend a single Harris disc is difficult. It is probably best to get both.

Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, February 2007

William Harris was organist /choirmaster at St George's Chapel for almost 30 years. His old choir does him proud. Recommended.

John Steane
Gramophone, February 2007

The previous CD devoted to SirWilliam Harris is worth calling to attention now because it presents the composer in a rather different light. This is by the Exon Singers directed by Andrew Carwood (ASV, 11/97), and very good, too. The earlier disc presented a writer somewhat reticent and elusive but proving himself, perhaps unexpectedly, firm and purposeful in structure and specific in word setting. In the second, we are more aware of a visionary exaltation. Here he has an affinity with Howells; in the Exon Singers' recording one thought more of his teachers, in particular the Parry of Songs of Farewell and Charles Wood.

The contrasting acoustics probably account for much of discrepancy. The clarity and precision of Carwood's singers are matched by the clean, relatively confined and non-reverberant acoustic of Tonbridge School Chapel, whereas the Choir of Saint George's sing among echoes, themselves telling of space in which visions of Eternity belong as by nature. Though the contents overlap, the two discs supplement each other very nicely and together reveal a composer of greater depth and broader appeal than either would suggest separately. St. George's take one directly to Harris's own working place: he was organist and choirmaster there from 1933 to 1961. The boys (with some lovely contrasts of tone-colour) and male altos make their distinctive and authentic contribution, and the performances have been carefully prepared. The masterpiece, Faire is the Heaven, has rarely sounded so well on records. Three items are claimed as premiere recordings, one of them, The night is come, mistakenly, possibly because in the Exon Singers' programme it goes under the title of Evening Hymn.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, January 2007

Sir William Harris is still best known for his anthem Faire is the Heaven, which sets parts of a poem by Edmund Spenser. But Harris’s catalogue includes a number of other pieces which deserve to be well known. Some ten years ago the Exon Singers under Andrew Carwood produced a disc of Harris’s choral music which brought it to our attention. Now Naxos have brought out a disc of Harris’s music sung by the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, where Harris was musical director for nearly thirty years.

Harris might have been an almost exact contemporary of Stravinsky, but his music contains little trace of modernism. He is a strong example of the late-Romantic English school, with his well-turned ear for word-setting, a fondness for good English poetry and a musical style that makes much of modulations. It is this latter which is his most distinguishing characteristic, his pieces rarely stay in a single key. He is adept at using chromatic modulations to enhance his projection of the text and to screw up the tension. Harris was also fond of using enharmonic changes as another tool in his finely wrought music.

A prime example of this is Faire is the Heaven which starts and ends in D flat major, the key that Harris associates with the souls resting in the divine presence. But as things get interesting D flat is transformed into C sharp and we slip into A major and then onward and onward until D flat major is reached again at the end.

The casual listener will probably be ignorant of the mechanics behind all this but the way Harris manipulates keys is a significant part of the music’s powerful effect. It also makes his larger-scale pieces tricky to sing well. Faire is the Heaven is the sort of well known piece that is easy to do indifferently and hard to do really well.

The Choir of St. George’s Chapel set them selves a strong task by undertaking these large-scale Harris pieces. Faire is the Heaven was written for a choir consisting of eight parts and the Windsor choir has just four altos, four tenors and four basses. This means that there are just two men on each of the lower parts. This means that we are aware of individual voices.

That the choir fails to blend into a shimmering whole is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that we are more aware of the different vocal lines and of the intricate part-writing in Harris’s more complex pieces. It helps that the choristers sing with passionate commitment. Harris’s music can be strong, meaty stuff and Timothy Byram-Wigfield and his choir obviously believe in it, and convey that belief to us.

We may detect individual voices but they all imbue Harris’s vocal lines with shapeliness and project the words well. The result is that the choir has a very distinct personality which, in this age of bland homogenisation, is a good thing.

Faire is the Heaven is preceded by another of Harris’s large-scale pieces, Strengthen ye the weak hands which was composed for the Commemoration of the Science and Art of Healing, so its texts are all chosen for their medical relevance. It is strong stuff indeed, well projected by St. George’s Chapel Choir and I hope their performance gains the work more admirers.

Love of love and Light of light sets another English poet, Robert Bridges. It was written in 1935 in memoriam Robert Bridges and dedicated to the poet’s wife, Monica. In this piece Harris seems to hark back to Parry and in place of his usual explorations of remote keys, utilises Parry-like sequential patterns. The result has some wonderfully evocative cascading phrases.

Another big piece, Praise the Lord O my soul was written in 1938. Initially rather understated, this piece gradually develops its material and produces some thrilling climaxes. The choir give it a wonderfully committed performance but there are a few smudgy details and at times their performance sounds a little too strenuous. Here and in one or two other places the trebles' tone can get a bit harsh under pressure. This slight harshness mars King of Glory, one of Harris’s simpler settings. Simpler it might be, but it is nonetheless an effective treatment of George Herbert’s text.

Harris’s Thomas Browne setting, The Night is Come, was published in 1961, the year that he retired. This has a lovely haunted opening that evokes Browne’s text beautifully. Though it develops strenuously there are some beautiful moments of repose, notably the lovely setting of the words ‘Sleep is a death, O make me try by sleeping what is to die’ and the calm, quiet closing pages with a lovely bass solo from James Birchall.

The disc ends with the setting of another great English poet, John Donne. Bring us, O Lord God was written some thirty years after Faire is the Heaven but its harmonic explorations have much in common with the earlier work and make a fitting conclusion to this recital.

Three of the pieces on the disc are world première recordings.

The CD booklet is written by Alastair Sampson, former organist of Eton College Chapel, who served as a chorister under Harris in the 1950s. Sampson’s notes are admirable, but they have the unfortunate tendency to refer to the works in an order different to that in which they are performed, which can be rather frustrating.

This Naxos disc will, I hope, bring Sir William Harris’s work to the attention of a whole new audience. Not everyone will be comfortable with the choir’s choral style and I hope that future recordings may refine things. But they perform their old master’s music with passion, commitment and a remarkable degree of accuracy. What more could you want?

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