Featuring ambitious and accomplished music for voices and viols, ‘Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems’ offers a privileged glimpse of a special moment in English music history. The four-part viol fantasies complement Phantasm’s previous recording of Ward’s five- and six-part works and show an equally fluent and skilful style exemplifying Jacobean consort fantasy at its best. The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford join Phantasm to perform Ward’s verse anthems which contain an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of textures and generous word painting amidst a polyphonic swirl of viols.
2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion starts celebrating early with this disc of two of the composer’s most popular choral works, both with a Christmas relevance. The cantata Saint Nicolas tells the story of the original ‘Santa Claus’, a fourth-century saint whose acts—revitalizing three boys who had been pickled by an unscrupulous landlord being among the more dramatic—led to his canonization as patron saint of children and sailors. Britten’s lively setting is distinctly operatic, full of incident and colour—with the story brought ‘home’ through the use of congregational hymns. The part of Nicolas (here sung magnificently by Allan Clayton, already acclaimed as the heir to Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson) is one of Britten’s great heroic tenor roles.
On this disc, the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge performs alongside four soloists and the period instrument ensemble St John’s Sinfonia. The tenor Sam Furness and bass George Humphreys both started their careers as Choral Scholars with this very choir. The mezzo-soprano Frances Bourne is in great demand on the concert platform and has sung with many of Europe’s leading conductors; the soprano Susan Gritton has amassed a vast discography that has earned her two Grammy nominations and includes, for Chandos, recordings of works by Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams.
The latter half of the sixteenth century and the first quarter of the seventeenth produced in Europe a remarkable array of composers, who by their artistry and invention developed polyphonic music to its full glory. The greatest of the English composers of the period was William Byrd (1543-1623) who, though important as an instrumental composer, was primarily a composer of church music. A variety of styles is to be found in Byrd's work, yet in his choral music he consistently shows a keen response to the mood and to the natural inflection of the words that he sets. In this respect it is interesting to compare a few of his settings with those of some of his great contemporaries on the continent.
The intensely practical choral music of the young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds is steadily gaining appreciation across the world. The works on this new album owe their genesis to commissions from the United States, England and northern Europe and encompass ethereal expressions of uniquely arctic phenomena (listen for wine glasses turned—and tuned—to wondrously simple but devastating effect within the choral texture), American ballads and several works in the ‘Anglican tradition’, the fruits of the composer’s recent residency at Trinity College Cambridge. Trinity College Choir Cambridge here returns the compliment, as it were, with superlative performances of these varied and engaging works, all recorded under the watchful eye of the composer and conductor Stephen Layton.
Herbert Howells was acutely sensitive to the transience of life, having witnessed the loss of friends and contemporaries in the First World War and encountered deep personal tragedy when his son Michael died of polio at the age of just nine. And so a mood of elegiac yearning inhabits much of his choral music: the austere, lovely a cappella Requiem, and the elegant Take him, earth, for cherishing, commissioned to commemorate the death of President John F Kennedy, here lovingly performed by the young voices of Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, in Hyperion’s Record of the Month for April 2012.
This EMI recording is the third Messiah that Cleobury and the King's College Choir have done, made during the 2009 Easter at King's season of concerts. As a fan of King's I find this an extremely satisfying recording of the work, and Cleobury and the King's Choir are in fine form as they have always been.