on 1 September 2011
This is a very moving work both in text and music. James Whitbourn is masterful in his sensitive interpretation and deep appreciation of the beauty of the poetry, and consequently his inspirational music is both powerful and thoughtful. Through these settings he explores the spiritual essence of our being; through life, death and beyond. The hauntingly beautiful melodies illuminate the emotions of love, grief, joy and hope of which the texts speak. The soprano saxophone with organ is a wonderfully inspired combination and provides a thread which further links the pieces. The excellent choir of Westminster Williamson Voices makes this a fine choral work and a joy to listen to again and again.
Naxos's second disc of choral music by British composer James Whitbourn (b.1963) includes his Son of God Mass (2001) and his "Requiem canticorum" (2010), along with several shorter pieces. Those who enjoy the choral music of, say, Karl Jenkins ("The Armed Man", for example) or Eric Whitacre should enjoy Whitbourn's immediately accessible style.
The Son of God Mass is scored for choir and organ, with the unusual addition of soprano saxophone. The normal liturgical movements are interspersed with interludes in which the saxophone takes centre stage. The music, which originates from a score Whitbourn wrote to accompany pictures of landscapes from the Holy Land, varies from the exuberant ("Gloria") to the heart-rending ("Lava me").
"Winter's Wait" is a melodious setting of a poem with a Christmas theme by the late, great tenor Robert Tear, and was written for King's College Choir, while "Give us the wings of faith" sets Isaac Watts' well-known poem. "A brief story of Peter Abelard" depicts the famous love-affair between Abelard and his pupil, Canon Fulbert's niece Heloise, and its dramatic consequences. This purely instrumental work (here for organ and saxophone) is a set of variations on Abelard's own hymn, "O quanta qualia". "A Prayer from South Africa" is a setting of a prayer by anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton, the antiphonal style of which reflects the origin of the text.
"Living Voices" (2001) was commissioned by the BBC for a broadcast in Westminster Abbey of a service conducted in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. The music provides the backdrop to a spoken poem written by the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. The lovely, plangent melody on the lonely saxophone is what gives this piece its emotional edge. The "Requiem canticorum" has its roots in another great tragedy - the atomic attack on Hiroshima - but is also influenced by human suffering on a much wider scale. It forms a thematic link with the Son of God Mass, and can be interwoven with it to form a full requiem mass. The plainsong melody heard at the outset reminds us of the link between this beautiful contemporary example of a requiem setting and the centuries of tradition underlying it.
"All shall be Amen and Alleluia" sets words by St. Augustine of Hippo. This piece, in which piano and percussion add a touch of extra colour, makes an entirely suitable epilogue to a highly enjoyable disc of music by a talented British composer of the younger generation. Who says contemporary composers can't write melodic music?
The performers on this disc (Westminster Williamson Voices; Ken Cowan, organ; and Jeremy Powell, saxophone) are excellent throughout.
One slight quibble: it is a pity that Naxos seems to have discontinued the practice of including texts with the liner notes. They are available for download on the Naxos website, but this is by no means as convenient as having them ready-printed.
on 18 October 2011
This is modern, fully accessible (by this I mean possessed of great musicality), Church music of high quality. On eleven of the twenty tracks the soprano saxophone of Jeremy Powell is included. To those lovers of Choral works accompanied by an organ let me say right away that this additional instrument lends much to the overall effect - very like an extraordinarily gifted soprano vocalise line. A Mass and a Requiem are separated by five shorter but delightfully contrasting pieces. All in all a splendid effort from Naxos.