Gramophone November 2005
Modern settings delivered by virtuoso singers for whom many were written.
A syrupy piece of kitsch by Ward Swingle is the odd one out here. The remainder of the disc is given over to English composers but the one thing linking all 12 anthems is that they have been composed since 2000. Only Todd’s wordless evocation of the singing of angels might be seen as using choral voices in a non-traditional way. As for the others, each relies on conventional choral devices, leaving the rest to the musicality and technical assurance of the singers themselves.
In this respect the Vasari Singers and Jeremy Backhouse have few equals. For the past quarter of a century that they have been a consistently outstanding choir and a majority of these pieces were commissioned for their 25th anniversary. One is sumptuous of the words of the Sufi mystic Al-Junaid that Gabriel Jackson that tailored to the unique strengths of the Vasaris, which he describes as ‘transparent, refined and meticulous, but also possessed of great fervour and vitality’.
Those qualities are much in evidence here in music ranging from the harrowing grief of Johnathon Rathbone’s ‘Absalon, my son’ to the exhilarating ‘Bless the Lord’ by Jonathon Dove. Only Stephen Barlow’s ‘When I See on Rood’ seems to have stretched the choir to its limits. It is as much a testament to the Vasari’s supreme collective virtuosity as to Jeremy Filsell’s innate sensitivity, that Filsell’s staggeringly resourceful organ playing in three of the anthems (by Dove, MacMillan, Filsell himself) complements rather than outshines the singing.
Music Web International
The Vasari Singers is one of Britain’s finest choirs, as I know from having acquired quite a few of their recordings over a long period. However, I hadn’t realised that the choir has been in existence for 25 years.
To celebrate that significant anniversary the choir and their conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, had the inspired idea to commission not a single anniversary work but instead shorter pieces from no less than ten composers. Every single work on this CD is here recorded for the very first time and nine of them are Vasari silver jubilee commissions. The tenth, from Francis Pott, has evolved into a much bigger work which the choir will première in 2006. The works on the disc that were not commissioned for the anniversary are those by Jonathan Dove, Jonathan Rathbone and James MacMillan.
I may as well say straightaway that all the pieces are of high quality – and some more than that – and without exception they receive superb performances. So if I don’t mention a piece specifically that should not be taken as implying anything adverse. It’s interesting, however, that almost all the composers who received commissions have responded with pieces that are predominantly subdued in tone. Does that say something about the times in which we live, I wonder? For the most part the pieces, including the three that weren’t commissioned, are rooted in the language of the "traditional" church anthem. However, these works expand, renew and enrich that tradition: there is nothing dull or routine here. In fact these compositions give one confidence that liturgical music of high quality is still being written today.
It’s worth quoting from Jeremy Backhouse’s very interesting liner note, in which he explains the idea behind the commissions. He tells us that his brief to the composers was that "their work should be able to sit comfortably within the context of a cathedral Evensong but that it could also look beyond any constraints of Liturgy or formal religious doctrine to embrace a wider, more ecumenical audience …" I would say that for the most part the composers have met that challenge successfully.
The piece by Jonathan Dove, one of the few that is accompanied, is imaginative and colourful. The choir starts off quietly, in contrast to the virtuoso organ part but Dove builds the work, a setting of words from Psalm 104, to an exciting conclusion, driven on by the organ. The piece that follows it, by Jonathan Rathbone, confronts a major challenge head-on. He was inspired by the famous anthems, When David heard, by Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins. How on earth do you write a setting of the same words that avoids either being a pastiche, a pale imitation, or something that is dwarfed by those earlier masterpieces? It seems to me that Rathbone has reinterpreted the earlier works in a powerful and individual way. Like his predecessors, he responds to the words with music of subdued but nonetheless deep grief. Indeed, as is the case with the Weelkes and Tomkins anthems, Rathbone’s offering is all the more effective because he employs restraint. The piece is sung with superb control and the hushed ending is particularly atmospheric.
I was greatly taken with Gabriel Jackson’s piece, Now I have known, O Lord, for which he has used words by a 10th century Sufi mystic. The imagery of the words themselves is wonderful – one might imagine John Tavener setting them. As I read them they are the words of a devout and humble man to his Maker. Jackson writes "the text seemed to demand a setting of great inwardness." The anthem begins quietly, in a mood of rapt adoration and continues in this subdued and intimate vein for most of its duration. Eventually a brief, radiant climax is achieved for the penultimate line of text "In wondrous and ecstatic Grace" but for the following words, "I feel Thee touch my inmost ground" the music sinks back into mystic adoration. This is a quite splendid piece and the Vasari Singers do it full justice.
Organist and composer, Jeremy Filsell, contributes a setting of words by Alice Meynell (1847-1922). The music is powerful and original and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the organ plays an important role. Filsell uses the text imaginatively and his music responds to and enhances the imagery of each individual stanza in an impressive way.
I confess I am still coming to terms with a couple of the pieces. Will Todd has already had a major work, St Cuthbert, recorded on CD (review. His Vasari commission, Angel Song II, is inspired by the idea of angels singing on Christmas night. It begins, not jubilantly, as you might anticipate, but quietly, with the angelic choirs heard as from a distance. Todd says "the music weaves a gentle melody over the aleatoric textures of the accompanying voices." In fact, the music is hushed throughout – this is about as far as you could get from the angelic "Glorias" in Ding, Dong, Merrily on High! It’s ethereal and atmospheric but I’m not entirely sure if it works as a stand-alone piece. Todd suggests that he might one day incorporate the piece into a much larger one and I think it might just sit more comfortably there as part of a greater whole.
The other work about which I’m unsure about at present is Barrie Bignold’s Peace. I think part of my difficulty stems from the text, specially written by Bob Cassidy. Cassidy’s words are not easily assimilated, at least not by me, and as Bignold says in a note: "This motet is all about the poem." So far I find this piece the least successful on the disc but that’s a wholly subjective view and one that I may modify with further listening. Already I can say that it contains some eloquent music and the ending is lovely.
As it happens, the final work on the disc, by Ward Swingle, which immediately follows the Bignold, also sets words written specially for the composer to set. However, Tony Vincent Isaacs’ Give us this day is a much more straightforward poem and it has inspired Swingle to write a very simple, direct four-part anthem. The music rarely rises above piano and the little refrain after each verse is beguiling. Though the music may sound simple it clearly needs a fine and sensitive choir to do it well. Happily, with the Vasari Singers on hand there’s no chance that the piece won’t be done justice.
The idea of these Vasari’s jubilee commissions was an imaginative and stimulating concept. I believe that the vision behind it has been vindicated triumphantly and the commissions have inspired some excellent additions to the choral repertory. I hope that enterprising choirs will investigate these pieces for they all merit wider circulation. However, only expert choirs need apply!
There are very useful, short notes on each piece and as you may have gathered from my comments above these are all by the respective composers … with the exception of James MacMillan. Full texts are also provided. The recorded sound is first class.
In summary, this is a most stimulating collection of music and it is hard to imagine that it could be performed better than by Jeremy Backhouse and his superb choir. I congratulate them on their silver jubilee and on the imaginative way in which they have marked it; a way that I hope will benefit other choirs as well. This outstanding CD is already on my shortlist for Recordings of the Year and I recommend it enthusiastically.
Muso. Aug/Sept 2005
Vasari Singers are one of the most critically acclaimed chamber choirs in the UK. Led by the charismatic Jeremy Backhouse, the choir has performed in most of London’s major concert venues and recorded everything from Lotti to Swingle, picking up Gramophone nominations and much audience appreciation along the way.
The group’s latest project is 10 new commissioned works from the likes of Gabriel Jackson, Will Todd, Stephen Barlow and Jeremy Filsell, which received their premiere in May at St John’s, Smith Suqare. The brief stated that each work should be suitable as an anthem in an Anglican cathedral evensong and should reflect the 21st century
Nine of the commissions appear on this lovely disc from Signum Classics, recorded at Tonbridge School Chapel, along with three additional pieces by Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan and Jonathan Rathbone.
Each piece is pleasingly different -from the vibrant organ and exultant voices of Dove’s Bless the Lord, O My Soul to the stunningly eerie atmosphere of Angel Song II by Will Todd.
Most of the pieces are either accompanied by Jeremy Filsell on organ, or a capella, leaving room for the listener to wallow in the gorgeousness of an assembly of luxurious voices. The soloists are top quality and the choir’s collected sensitivity, coherence and dramatic sensibility makes up for anything it occasionally lacks tonally. If you have any doubts about the 21st Century’s ability to produce anything of aesthetic worth, play this disc.
Choir Schools Today
The Vasari Singers are one of this country’s longest established quality chamber choirs and leading proponents of contemporary church music. This disc is made up entirely of world premiere recordings, 9 of the 12 pieces commissioned for the choir’s 25th anniversary, with the guiding brief that the work might reflect the state of the world at the start of the new millennium, and also sit comfortably within the context of a cathedral evensong. Consequently, this is a stimulating and inspiring project between composers and choir. Highlights among the commissions include Will Todd’s Angel Song II, Humphrey Clucas’ Hear my crying, O God, Philip Moore’s I saw him standing and Ward Swingle’s Give us this day, while other non-commissioned premieres include Jonathan Dove’s Bless the Lord O my soul and James Macmillan’s Chosen. There can be little doubt that cathedral music needs the pioneering spirit of the Vasari Singers to encourage new works, yet one suspects that many of these pieces with a high level of difficulty will not be finding their way onto cathedral repertoires. Occasionally moments of these pieces prove too much for the choir, with the sopranos noticeably losing their even tone in the higher registers, but this is more than made up for elsewhere, the highlights for me including in the incisive singing at the jagged rhythms of Dove’s Bless the Lord, the sublime wordless Angel Song II of Todd, and the emotional restraint in Moore’s I saw him standing. Overall, an exiting disc, that enhances Vasari’s position at the forefront of choral singing in his country.
American Record Guide, November/ December 2005
A choral concert cum silver anniversary party as the Vasaris, a British choir of 30, celebrate their 25th year of artistic life with 12 world premiere recordings, nine of them commissioned especially for the occasion. The works are sacred, all designed for use at Evensong. Choral artistry, it comes as no surprise, is exceptional – this has always been a first-class outfit – and there’s new music worth hearing as well. Jonathan Dove’s ‘Bless the Lord’, with its organ fanfares creating some brilliant flashes of light, is a winner, as are Jonathan Rathbone’s achingly sad ‘Absalom’ and James MacMillan’s absorbing take on the emotional implications of the Annunciation. MacMillan really gives the singers a chance to shine. Listen to how they dig into the haunting text from Michael Symmons Roberts’s ‘Her Maker’s Maker’. Will Todd’s wordless ‘Angel Song’ offers moments of quiet ecstasy, while Ward Swingle’s graceful ‘Give us This Day’ acts as a final blessing on the whole endeavour. Yes, there are some snoozers interspersed with the rest, but nothing’s that bad, and the Vasaris are always worth a listen. For choral aficionados, this might be a nice opportunity to check out some new repertoire.