Continuing Signum’s new partnership with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort following the triumphant success of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (SIGCD280), their latest release is a recording of the groups renowned a cappella programme of music for mourning and consolation. This is a beautifully poignant programme of British choral music, including works by composers as diverse as Morley and Dove, Sheppard and Walton and featuring Howells’ sublime Requiem.
A Song of Farewell: Music of Mourning & Consolation
What people are saying
Release date:5th Mar 2012
Recordings of the Year 2012 – Musicweb International
The first line of my review says it all – "This is a disc of staggering beauty and effortless sophistication". The tradition of British Choral singing at its best.
Musicweb International, Nick Barnard
The first thing to realise is that this is a ‘concept’ album – all very trendy and popular at present. It comes in a white hard-covered booklet with the disc tidily attached inside. The paper is good quality and the texts are in English only with trendy monochrome photos of the performers and of misty-moisty mornings in Ely.
You could argue that Paul McCreesh is not new to this kind of disc. I’m thinking particularly of his dazzlingly successful ‘A Venetian Coronation 1595’ originally on Virgin Classics (1990). There’s also his slightly overlooked but wonderful recording of ‘Venetian Easter Mass’ (1997) on Archiv. Whereas these earlier discs were stylistically consistent this new one is a bit of a dog’s dinner with Robert White rubbing shoulders with Jonathan Dove. In the accompanying notes – which take the form of an interview between McCreesh and Gregg Skidmore a member of the Gabrieli Consort and a Ph.D. student – Skidmore comments that the title ‘is not especially cheery’. Even so, McCreesh’s point is well made that this music acts as a consolation for those who are confronting death either personally or with a loved one – that is the power of music. We need to “seek God’s protection from the perils of life’s journey”.
The disc begins with two settings of Drop, Drop Slow Tears by Gibbons and Walton. Further consolation is to be found in MacMillan’s glorious A Child’s Prayer which was composed after the Dunblane massacre to remember the dead. Then we have a calm and dignified performance of Morley’s Funeral Sentences still in use today in various churches. A complete Requiem one of the most moving of all time by Herbert Howells. It includes a setting of Psalm 23 sometimes known in its hymnal guise as Crimond and used at funerals everywhere. The text of John Sheppard’s comforting and blissful In Manus tuas, an evening hymn includes the lines “Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit”. Indeed I could go through each piece and wax lyrical. Instead I will say that the CD could be enjoyed simply track by track, or, and this is rarely recommendable, straight through in one sitting, I did both and especially appreciated the latter before retiring for a easy night’s sleep.
This appeared at first to be a self-indulgent disc by a choir whose real expertise lies in what some people regard as rather cerebral early music and who are out to indulge themselves in slow, mournful and expressively unvaried pieces. In fact it becomes a fascinating mélange of approaches to the subject of death and of how we each face it. It should be said immediately that the singing is exemplary and the recorded balance flawless, set as it is in the perfect acoustic of the Chapter House at Ely. It is good to have the texts as no matter how good the choir, counterpoint and resonance can often smother even the best of diction.
The longest work is the Howells. One must ask how it bears up, coming as it does towards the end of a rather ‘weepy’ programme. There are several versions of it on the market but can we ignore this one just because of the context of its presentation? When I listen to this work I feel that it is the most beautiful piece I’ve ever heard. I thought that the version by The Finzi Singers on Chandos under Paul Spicer (CHAN 9019) was unbeatable but this new one is certainly its equal. It is beautifully paced, and the solo work which can be a weakness is ideal; the balance, just lovely. I prefer it in fact, as it is unhurried and even more expressive than Spicer being almost four minutes slower in performance.
Finally to Parry’s Songs of Farewell written towards the end of his life. The Parry gives this disc its title. Lord let me know mine end, the last of the set of six is rather less well known. It’s a challenging piece. Here it is given an emotional reading which exemplifies what McCreesh says in his conversation: that he often exhorts professional singers to remember, as they can become overly familiar with some texts, to sing with passion.
So, a fine disc this. I concur with other reviewers on [Musicweb] in saying no less than ‘buy it’.
Musicweb International, Gary Higginson
As album titles go, that of the Gabrielli Consort’s new disc doesn’t strike a desperately cheery note, and Paul McCreesh’s reasoning that death is ?a central and inescapable truth, for every generation,? is no more mirth-inducing.
However, as McCreesh points out, there’s a vast array of wonderful sacred music devoted to the passing of life. Indeed, his exploration of how different composers within the English choral tradition have dealt with the subject of death across the centuries is a curiously life-enhancing recording, and certainly worthy of making the effort to suppress our 21st century penchant for pushing death under the carpet until the last possible moment.
This is partly because the music of British composers tends to deal less with the final day of judgement and more with the transience of our lives and the Christian optimism as regards the afterlife. It’s also because McCreesh has put together a glorious programme. Contrasting yet complementary, it is guaranteed to draw you into reflection whatever you think of religion itself.
The programme opens with Gibbons’ Drop, Drop, Slow Tears, paired with Walton’s A Litany.Â It finishes with Parry’s Lord, Let Me Know Mine End. Within, Tudor music such as Morley’s Funeral Sentences sits alongside later works such as James MacMillan’s response to the 1996 Dunblane massacre, A Child’s Prayer. The longest work and the original starting point for the programme, is one of the most deeply moving works in the English sacred canon, Herbert Howells’ Requiem.
The performances themselves don’t disappoint either. Expressive, emotive, switching easily between the styles of the various centuries, there’s also a satisfying avoidance of any soft-focus delivery intended to up the emotional ante, particularly in the Requiem.
BBC.co.uk/Music, Charlotte Gardner
Recording of the Month
This is a disc of staggering beauty and effortless sophistication. Every element of it oozes care in conception and execution right down to the austere simplicity of the pure white booklet design and tastefully discreet aquamarine print. I am wary of compilation albums and also of baroque specialists who suddenly turn their hand to other eras of music. On both fronts Paul McCreesh and his superb Gabrieli Consort prove me woefully wrong in this instance.
The sub-title of the disc elegantly sums up the contents music of mourning and consolation. In the discussion/liner McCreesh explains that the programme was built around the main work the extraordinary Howells Requiem to reflect different aspects of grief, death, loss and crucially consolation across the centuries. Not all the works are specifically settings of the liturgy for the dead but the abiding emotion is one of reflection and ultimate redemption. In the hands of lesser groups this might make for a rather high quality even saccharine background music CD. The Gabrieli’s enormous skill is their super-sensitive response to the texts and an extraordinarily fine control of dynamic, balance and line.
Until the programme reaches the aforementioned Howells the music alternates very effectively between 16th and 20th century composers. From the very first bars of the opening item Orlando Gibbons’ ravishing Drop, drop slow tears (in an arrangement by Percy Dearmer) the listener is drawn into an ecstatically visionary world of gently poised pain and regret. McCreesh makes so many subtle yet effective choices; he includes women’s voices in the Gibbons because of the 19th/20th century arrangement but stays with men alone for the other ‘early’ works. The music is paired to allow ancient and modern conceptions of the same enduring human emotions. That is the central message of the disc the mode of expression may change over the centuries but mankind’s experience of those emotions remains the same. The presence of the male altos in such works as the Howells give the inner lines a steely edge which again stops the music sinking into the soupy pastoralism that can afflict much 20th century British music and its performance.
The choice of the richly resonant Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral benefits nearly all the music and certainly endows the entire disc with a wholly suitable ecclesiastical air. This is one of those rare discs where every individual item is a joy in itself yet the impact of the whole is greater still. It is quite impossible to select any portion as ‘better’ than any other but my predilection for 20th century British music does draw me towards James MacMillan’s sublime A Child’s Prayer written as a response to the Dunblane School massacre and Jonathan Dove’s Into thy hands. Listen to the way as programmed out of the unearthly stillness at the end of the MacMillan (so very beautifully sung) the In Manus tuas by the 16th Century John Sheppard emerges. The juxtaposition, more spiritual consonance really, takes both works to a higher level still. Dove sets the same text initially – as Sheppard. He is following in the Anglican tradition of Howells with a setting of iridescent beauty. The harmonies slide from shimmering dissonance to warm consonance. It sounds like a brute to sing with the kind of poise and grace achieved here. Curiously the two works that made least impact are the Elgar and Parry. The Elgar sounds a little bit cosy in its harmony and emotional range in comparison with the rest of the programme. The Parry is the one work which with its contrapuntal complexity suffers most in the blurring acoustic of the cathedral. Not that these are anything but super-fine performances of these great works. It is just that the bar is set so high on this disc that they come up relatively short.
This leaves the Howells Requiem. Its association with the tragic loss of his nine year old son is well-known and although written some years before that disaster it was the work he mined for what became his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi in 1950. The original Requiem was not released for publication until 1980 and can now be seen as the seminal work from which Howells’ association with the Anglican Liturgy grew. It remains one of the great liturgical works by a 20th century British composer and as such has been well served on disc. There are numerous versions available from just about every type of choir from boy-voiced church choirs to mixed secular groups. The Gabrieli Consort are the equal of any and as elsewhere benefit from a heightened yet subtle response to the text and the musical implications of it. This is subtle and refined music-making not crude word-painting or ugly pointing up of passing musical material. The sense is that one has stumbled on an act of private and personal grieving. There is an intimacy and an identification with the restrained passion of the work that transcends the physical act of ‘making music’ and reaches to the very essence – offering both mourning and consolation. I imagine the recording of this work in the glorious space that is Ely Cathedral must have been a very spiritually uplifting and moving experience for the performers it certainly sounds that way.
A few last practical details; full texts are printed with English-only translations where necessary. The format of the CD is the increasingly popular mini-book style with the disc slipping neatly into a pocket inside the front cover. The liner is beautifully printed on high quality paper in English only. It includes several photographs from the sessions as well as a couple of very atmospheric pictures of the cathedral. The interview/liner between Paul McCreesh and Consort member Greg Skidmore is that rarest of things interesting and informative. Special mention to producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Neil Hutchinson who have achieved a perfect recording for this kind of disc; atmospheric yet detailed, intimate yet able to expand to meet the demands of the several passionately ecstatic climaxes. My only surprise is that it seems to have been recorded in 2009. Why have we had to wait so long for a disc of such quality? A disc of the year without doubt.
Gramophone, May 2012
McCreesh’s singers in British music of mourning and loss
Any disc subtitled ‘Music of Mourning & Consolation’ is not going to be a bundle of laughs. But Paul McCreesh has devised such a satisfying programme of mostly short a cappella pieces that the effect is the reverse of depressing. Gibbons would not have approved of the English Hymnal’s truncation of his joyful ‘song’ to fit different (albeit contemporary) words; but he might still have been moved by the slow, prayerful performance given here. It’s followed by Walton’s setting of the same verses, with its haunting two-note phrases and a final cadence almost worthy of Howells.
And it’s Howells who makes the most substantial contribution to the disc. The Requiem was written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1932 but not released for performance till 1980. Much of the second movement, a setting of Psalm 23, is a choral recitative. After a solo passage for three voices, sweetly sung by Charlotte Mobbs, Kim Porter and Richard Butler, the choir enters pianissimo. McCreesh handles the subsequent crescendo at ‘I will fear no evil’ quite magically. Psalm 121, similar in conception, is followed by the second ‘Requiem aeternam’, sung with intensity.
McCreesh finds equal poignancy in MacMillan’s A Childs Prayer. If the last of Parry’s Songs of Farewell doesn’t quite match Richard Marlow’s performance (Conifer, 9/87 – nla), that is partly due to the over-reverberant acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. An excellent disc, all the same.
I could easily have passed this over, since it is not primarily an "early music" programme. In fact, 20′ 40" are devoted to early music, the most substantial being Morley’s funeral sentences (without Purcell’s substitution). The singing struck me as a bit overstated for their function in an Anglican funeral: Paul writes in the booklet (no page number to quote) "I am constantly imploring singers not to be frightened of expressing the emotions of the text", but some music (both early and late) needs the decorum of a formal reading of a lesson. Maybe, though, a different quality is needed when the music is removed from the liturgy. I wondered if the style and sound was intended not to contrast with that of the "modern" music (from Parry to Dove). The raison d’etre of the disc is Howell’s Requiem and it is impressive as the core of a powerful programme. Going back to the opening Gibbons hymn "Drop, drop slow tears", it then seemed right. Some discs are built out of contrast: this glories in its breadth of tone, matching the sombre consolation of the words and music. It is certainly impressive!
Early Music Review
BBC Music Magazine, April 2012
Performance *****, Recording *****
Recording of the month
Voices of intelligent beauty
A daringly slow tempo – far slower than most choirs could manage technically-with no sense of strain whatever in supporting the voices; the little dynamic swell on ‘vengeance’ in verse two; a perfectly poised pianissimo to Start verse three. Already in Gibbons’s Drop, Drop, Slow Tears there are numerous indications of the elevated artistry Paul McCreesh and the 22 singers of his Gabrieli Consort bring ro this beautifully planned and executed programme.
In a fascinating interview in the booklet, Paul McCreesh discusses mourning and consolation, the themes that inform his choice of composers and compositions for A Song of Farewell. But his mix of English choral works from Sheppard to Dove and MacMillan doesn’t just work on paper. There’s also much emotion in the performances. McCreesh’s choice of sopranos who either have little vibrato or can eliminate it when requested has a palpable impact on rhe poignancy of the leading line in Morley’s Funeral Sentences, creating a natural sense of lamentation. And McCreesh has a knack of making telling textual observations without artfully ‘ interpreting’ the music.
This intelligent unobtrusiveness of gesture produces a superb account of Howells’s Requiem, a work which can be featurelessly soporific. Here, Requiem aeternam II is shaped in a concentrated arc, climaxing with the soaring tenor line on ‘Et lux perpetua’ at the movement’s exact mid-point. Richard Burler’s poised, movingly restrained tenor solo in the concluding ‘ I heard a voice from Heaven’ is worth a special mention.
So too is the breath control of the Gabriel is: nor only do they effortlessly rake the long opening statements in Parry’s Lord, let me know mine end without caesuras, they do so while singing quietly, and working telling little inflections into the phrasing, gently prising forth the underlying emotions.
They bring similarly exalted levels of technical control to Jonathan Dove’s Into thy hands, the sharply angled suspensions slanting high above the lower textures like shafts of sunlight glinting brightly through a cathedral window.
Among the shorter pieces, a soothingly inward In manus tuas (Sheppard) and A child’s prayer (MacMillan) rapt with drama and quiet mystery stand our. This is a superlative, unmissable issue.
The Sunday Times
This is a concept album, a sequence of purgative music on the theme of death by a wide range of British composers from the English Renaissance to today. Gibbons’s Drop, drop, slow tears is followed by Walton’s A Litany, a setting of the same text composed 300 years after. James MacMillan’s A child’s prayer and Jonathan Dove’s Into Thy hands testify to the flourishing today of the art of sensitive word-setting. Elgar’s sublime They are at rest is followed by two more substantial pieces, Howells’s poignantly refined Requiem and Parry’s gorgeous extended anthem Lord let me know mine end.
Classic FM Magazine
Great musicians are born of thousands of hours spent practicing alone, learning the craft. Great musicianship is not about flashy virtuosity, slithery social networking or eye-popping websites. No amount of PR wizardry is going to make you a great artist. Some make dramatic breakthroughs as teenagers (witness Benjamin Grosvenor) but most will take much longer. There’s no rush, it’s not a race. Take your time and choose the right moment. And, most importantly, learn from the best. This recording is a good place to start. Budding singers, composers, conductors and producers everywhere take note: this is how it’s done.
Paul McCreesh founded the Gabrieli Consort in 1982 and for 15 years had a productive recording relationship with DeutscheGrammophon, winning numerous accolades along the way. But over time it became clear that McCreesh and DG had different artistic visions, so they amicably parted company and McCreesh bravely formed his own label, Winged Lion, and recorded the massive Berlioz Grande Messe des Marts (which we awarded five stars in our December issue) and this, their glorious second album.
A Song of Farewellwas recorded in the warmly reverberant acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. The singing is immaculate. James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer builds from a quietly pulsing heart beat, deep in the bass register, and blooms ecstatically on the words ‘Joy and love my heart are filling’. The soprano soloists ? Amy Moore and Kirsty Hopkins ? deserve a special mention for sustaining a sumptuous tone whilst all the while their voices ascend heavenward. MacMillan’s music is as technically demanding as it is emotionally powerful and it is a wonder that these exceptional young singers make it all sound so effortless.
Herbert Howells composed his Requiem in 1932, but the music went on to have a life far beyond its initial intent. In 1935 Howells’ nine-year-old son Michael died suddenly of polio; it was a tragedy that would colour Howells’ life and music until the day he died nearly 50 years later. Howells worked through the suffocating grief to produce one of the most highly regarded British choral works of all, Hymnus paradisi, borrowing music from his unperformed Requiem. This recording of the original work is intoxicatingly beautiful, the surprise cadence at the close of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ movement, in particular, is delicately glorious.
The album begins with a setting of ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ by Orlando Gibbons. It is the simplest of hymn tunes and a deeply consideredway to start this musical journey. It returns the listener to the essential elements of choral music, simply words and a tune. Gibbons’s melody is followed by William Walton’s setting of the same text and the juxtaposition of the two works serves to demonstrate bow the dramatic potential of a text can be unlocked with perfectly judged use of harmony. So now that the musical building blocks are in place ? words, melody and harmony ? the traversalof choral lamentation spanning the centuries can begin in earnest.
In a world in which it seems that so much of so little inherent artistic value is rewarded with so much press coverage, where Saturday night prime-time karaoke competitions make breathless claims to represent the final word on the art of singing, this album (and indeed virtually all of the albums that we have reviewed favourably in this magazine over the years) serves as a vital reminder that there is more depth of feeling, emotional power and intellectual stimulation to the art of music-making than we can ever hope to truly understand. All we can do is applaud.
The Times, March 2012
Gorgeously melancholic British funeral music for unaccompanied choir. ranging from Sheppard and Morley to Elgar. For me. the highlight is Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Grief seeping from every cadence.lt’s beautifully sung by Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort in an acoustic that sounds aptly like a tomb but is, in fact. Ely Cathedral.
Andrew McGregor: …and it has little in common with our next disc of choral music – it’s Tenebrae, Ivan, this time, with Hubert Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’ amongst other things. Introduce the ensemble, first of all.
Ivan Hewett: Well, Tenebrae – what a wonderful choir they are, you know. They seem to be so strong in so many different kinds of repertoire. I mean, I was just struck on this CD at a wonderful sort of evening glow that seems to spread itself over the entire disc. You know, so many of the pieces are memorial pieces or in fact associated with an evening time of day, and the choir just strike this lovely, almost twilit quality which suits the repertoire beautifully.
AMG: Well, they’ve picked the Parry ‘Songs of Farewell’ out of the line-up of quite a few composers as the headline for the disc, if you like, and if you can only think of ‘I was glad’ when you hear Parry, or some of his services, what’s going to surprise you about this?
IH: Oh, I suppose the gentleness of it, really, and actually the modesty of it. These are not startling pieces. They’re not pieces you turn to to be convinced that Parry had a startlingly original tone of voice, but they are beautifully turned pieces, and they are arranged as a cycle rather cleverly to become more ambitious as they go along and as more voice parts are added. They’re beautifully wrought – you know, this is a man who obviously knew his madrigals very well, as did other composers on this CD, and they also live in that area of English metaphysical poetry which is also found elsewhere on the disc. These songs and the others are bound together as much by a poetic as by a musical sensibility.
AMG: Well, we’re going to hear something from the ‘Songs of Travel’ by Parry. Why choose this one?
IH: I liked ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ because I’m very fond of the poem, actually, and I think the imagery is delightful – you know, the idea of a soul having been buffeted by the storms of life into the safe harbour, as it were, of the Lord’s keeping. It’s very beautifully expressed in the poem, and I think Parry captures that sentiment very beautifully in his music.
AMG: ‘Never weather-beaten sail’, from Hubert Parry’s ‘Songs of Travel’, written between 1913 and 15, and performed by Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short. And Ivan, straightaway there was the clarity, the accuracy, the immaculate intonation, and that sense that there’s always something in reserve should it be needed. This seems to be an ensemble with limitless power, doesn’t it?
IH: Yes, well of course it’s quite generously made. You know, there are 21 singers in total, and yet there’s a kind of delicacy about the sound. It’s got a clarity and a warmth together that are, on this disc, very seductive.
AMG: And that’s a tribute to the recording as well. It’s beautifully produced. There’s so much air around it there’s space for everything to just glow, isn’t there?
IH: Oh, it’s a lovely thing, and I think that one might think, looking at the range of pieces, that perhaps this is all a little bit too evening-ish, but actually it hangs together as a whole very well.
AMG: Now I find that surprising, because you look at the composers – we’ve got Holst, Howells, John Taverner, Richard Rodney Bennett, and I was thinking, hang on a second, there are going to be dissonances between the works.
IH: Yes, it looks as if it could be a bumpy ride. In fact, it really struck me how choral music has this continuity of sensibility running right the way through it. You put the Richard Rodney Bennett piece next to the Vaughan Williams and, you know, one hardly feels a jolt. And again it’s partly to do with the choice of poems, in that British composers do have an enormous fondness for seventeenth-century poetry, particularly the metaphysicals. Henry Vaughan comes round twice, John Donne comes round twice…
AMG: There’s also room for folksong.
IH: There is room for folksong, which of course was such an important part of the whole choral revival of the twentieth century. I’ve chosen Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of ‘The Turtle Dove’, a song which he himself collected. This gives an opportunity to hear one or two solo voices, and again it’s beautifully understated and tactful and exactly right for the original melody.
AMG: Tenor Gabriel Crouch was the main soloist in that performance of Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘The Turtle Dove’, with Tenebrae directed by Nigel Short, a folksong setting arranged in 1919. You’ll find it on Signum Classics.
BBC Radio 3, CD Review
- Drop, drop, slow tears – Orlando Gibbons – 2.06
- A Litany: Drop, drop, slow tears – William Walton – 4.24
- Christe, qui lux es et dies – Robert White – 4.30
- A child’s prayer – James MacMillan – 4.19
- In manus tuas (I) – John Sheppard – 4.12
- Into thy hands – Jonathan Dove – 8.19
- Funeral sentences – Thomas Morley – 10.26
- They are at rest – Edward Elgar – 3.29
- Requiem: i. Salvator mundi – Herbert Howells – 2.35
- Requiem: ii. The Lord is my shepherd – Herbert Howells – 2.47
- Requiem: iii. Requiem aeternam – Herbert Howells – 4.55
- Requiem: iv. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills – Herbert Howells – 2.59
- Requiem: v. Requiem aeternam (2) – Herbert Howells – 5.09
- Requiem: vi. I heard a voice from heaven – Herbert Howells – 5.40
- Lord, let me know mine end (from Songs of Farewell) – C. H. H. Parry – 11.43