Oxford University Press Launches “New Horizons” – “Exciting, innovative, and occasionally challenging choral music … both secular and sacred…” (16 April)

Roderick Williams
O Adonai
Gabriel Jackson
Salus Aeterna
Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ
Cecilia Virgo
Francis Pott
A Hymn to the Virgin
John Rutter
Hymn to the Creator of Light
Kerry Andrew
O lux beata Trinitas
Andrew Carter
No man is an island
Richard Baker
To Keep a True Lent
Bob Chilcott
My Prayer
Tarik O’Regan
Gratias tibi
Care charminge sleepe
Howard Skempton
Four by the Clock
Michael Berkeley
Wild Bells (organ solo)

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Tim Brown

Nicholas Collon and James McVinnie (organ)

Reviewed by: Phyllis Stringer

Reviewed: 16 April, 2004
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

This concert was promoted by the Music Department of Oxford University Press to herald the publication of a new series of choral music entitled “New Horizons”, which features the work of composers whose names are less familiar, alongside those who are rather better known. One of the things that struck me about most of the music heard on this occasion – and presumably the pieces are representative of New Horizons as a whole – is how thoroughly rooted in the English Cathedral tradition it is.

By English Cathedral I mean, by expansion, collegiate foundations and public schools. It was no surprise to learn that such bodies commissioned many of these pieces heard at this recital. The repertoire presented was, by and large, pretty challenging. I would imagine that establishments where choral forces are more modest – such as parish churches (though those with regular choirs are fast becoming a dying breed) – would find much of the music beyond their resources.

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge presented these pieces – mostly anthems and motets – with a good deal of conviction, under the authoritative direction of Tim Brown. Some of the vocal writing was taxing – especially for the sopranos who often had to cope with some very loud high-lying phrases – but the young singers made light of any innate difficulties. As with any ’collection’ of this sort, some pieces were more effective than others. If there is a general observation to be made, then a number of them had a tendency to outstay their welcome. The opening piece – Roderick Williams’s O Adonai – was a case in point. Distantly placed sopranos weaved a separate line from the main choir, and the effect was initially quite striking but soon palled through repetition.

Gabriel Jackson’s name is already reasonably familiar in church-music circles, and his pieces are thoroughly indebted to others working within that tradition – most notably Vaughan Williams and, particularly in Salus Aeterna, Gustav Holst. The intended bagpipe-like organ accompaniment in Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ didn’t quite work on this occasion due to some problems of co-ordination – the organ at the rear of the church and the choir at the front. Some of the texts which had been set were reasonably familiar – others less so – but it would have been helpful to have had copies of the words in the programme, since sometimes they were not entirely clear, despite the best endeavours of the choir.

It is brave for a composer to write music for a text that is very well known, and even more so when there is an existing musical setting. It cannot be said that Francis Pott’s A Hymn to the Virgin comes near to superseding Britten’s setting, in spite of some evocative harmonies and appropriate word painting.

It was gratifying to note that one of the most successful pieces was by the only woman composer represented – Kerry Andrew’s O lux beata Trinitas – who demonstrated an apt response to the words and created some effective overlapping textures.

Tarik O’Regan’s two pieces displayed his technical facility, although in the case of Care charminge sleepe, there was an obvious indebtedness to John Adams’s Harmonium, with its vocal lines rising from a sustained chordal texture. One piece which didn’t quite come off was Howard Skempton’s Four by the Clock, where the unvaried – largely homophonic – writing and angular soprano intervals seemed a bit at odds with the imagery of Longfellow’s verse.

Michael Berkeley’s organ solo Wild Bells was a welcome contrast to the largely a cappella music which surrounded it, and this composer’s assured touch could be felt in the final item of this quite lengthy programme. Farewell was written as part of a tribute to the late Linda McCartney. It is touching without being mawkish, and expressive whilst avoiding sentimentality. It made a fine conclusion to this concert with demonstrated that the English Cathedral tradition is alive and flourishing, and safe in the hands of Oxford University Press.

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