Jesu, the very thought of thee
Blessed city, heavenly Salem
Evening Service in D
Lord, thou hast been our refuge
If the Lord had not helped me
Let all mortal flesh keep silence
Evening Service in G
Five Poems of the Spirit
Save us, O Lord
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Paul Provost (organ)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Recorded 13 & 14 January 2007 in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: HYPERION CDA67497
Duration: 63 minutes
Anyone who been within shouting distance of an organ loft in an English cathedral will be familiar with the name of Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946). His Anthems and Service settings have been part of the regular repertoire for church choirs for over a century and he was one of the most distinguished holders of the post of Organist and Master of the Music at York Minster from 1913 until his death. One of his successors, Dr Philip Moore, writes the informative booklet note for this recording and when one realises that Bairstow’s pupils included Gerald Finzi (who was devoted to him) and Francis Jackson (another long-serving York Minster organist) one might begin to think that his contribution to English music has been under-estimated.
It is true to say that much of the music on this disc, the two Evening Services for instance, does what it has to do in a perfectly competent and reliable way, but much of it also points to a distinctive musical voice, which perhaps under different circumstances might have lead to Bairstow having a more prominent place in our musical history. The very first track on the disc for instance, “Jesu. the very thought of thee” is quite beautifully written. The choice and use of texts was of paramount importance to Bairstow and he sets these with great care – listen to the way he ‘leans’ on the word “thought” for instance and the clever use of silence to enhance what might at first look like a simple, tiny anthem. “Blessed city…” is on a grander scale and has real passion – again the use of sudden dramatic silences that curiously enough would not be out of place in the music of Bairstow’s distinguished pupil. Most surprising of all is the sheer harmonic austerity. To those expecting tedious old Anglican Church music: think again!
The real revelation is “Five Poems of the Spirit” – Moore tells of how much trouble these settings gave the composer and indeed they were left unfinished at his death, at least in terms of orchestration, and completed by another pupil, Ernest Bullock. These are perhaps a close relation of the “Five Mystical Songs” of Vaughan Williams and inhabit the same sort of rather reflective, and, yes, mystical soundworld, setting texts by the Metaphysical Poets Richard Crashaw and George Herbert as well as a beautiful poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘Purse and Scrip’. Bairstow responds to this with music that is confident, bracing, imaginative, and, at times, quite magical. The composer’s great love, J. S. Bach, peeps through (and perhaps Finzi again) in the second setting ‘O Lord, in me there lieth naught’, whilst the third, ‘Praise’, has an almost Elgarian swagger. The wistful ending of the last setting makes one regret all the more that Bairstow didn’t spend more time or have the confidence to set his mind to these larger projects. Anyone who loves English choral music will respond positively to every moment of these settings.
As for the performances – the ever-reliable and versatile Roderick Williams is as eloquent as always and the Choir makes some wonderful sounds – the entry in the fourth part of ‘Poems of the Spirit’ is alone worth the price of the CD alone.
Warmly and enthusiastically recommended.