This Hyperion release of mostly a cappella settings reports a confident and highly gifted composer, Owain Park (born 1993), his alma mater The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge doing him proud, Stephen Layton securing polish and beauty, the singers’ robust and well-blended sound captured with sumptuous bloom in its sixteenth-century Chapel.
As an ex-chorister, and a Senior Organ Scholar at Trinity, it is not surprising that this collection uses sacred texts, as well as words by Lawrence Binyon, Kathleen Raine and Rowan Williams. Park’s style is eclectic, not least reminding of his composition tutor John Rutter who (in his booklet note, which includes texts) suggests Park’s music defies classification. Yet this compilation indicates a thorough assimilation of Anglican Church music so that Howells and Leighton (amongst countless others) meld into an instantly recognisable English manner. Elsewhere there is an awareness of Francis Pott and Eric Whitacre. But, regardless of which composers’ mannerisms Park may have absorbed into his creative bloodstream his music reveals a keen ear for rich sonorities. Generally, he avoids fast tempos, but two exceptions can be heard in the exuberant fanfares of ‘Caelos ascendit hodie’ and a buoyant psalm collation ‘The wings of the wind’, which opens proceedings and excels in its dramatic pacing and vivid word-painting.
By far the most obviously tuneful number is ‘I wonder as I wander’ that will no doubt become a Christmas go-to piece. In stark contrast, the sombre Maundy Thursday setting ‘Judas mercator pessimus’ (capturing Christ’s betrayal by Judas) is amongst Park’s more-challenging works and, like the bitonal scrunches of ‘The Lord's Prayer’, the Trinity Choir makes light of the demands and sing with terrific conviction. Less complex but equally compelling is the exotic ‘Above the stars my Saviour dwells’, with a wonderfully soaring soprano part exquisitely sung by Imogen Russell. ‘Phos hilaron’(Greek for gladdening light) is an evocative meditation on evening where Park’s natural gift for lavish writing finds expressive outlet.
There’s plenty of atmosphere too in ‘Upheld by stillness’, previously recorded on Harmonia Mundi. I particularly like the journey from darkness to light in ‘Justorum animae’ which ends in a cloud of beatific tranquillity as the souls of the righteous attain everlasting peace. Only in ‘The spirit breathes’ does the Chapel’s superb Metzler organ have an opportunity to display its bright plumage, Alexander Hamilton contributing to the celebratory anthem to bring this impressive issue to a dazzling close.