The English Anthem, Vol. 1

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The English Anthem, Vol. 1

  • O Lord, turn thy wrath
  • Teach me, O Lord
  • Exalt thyself, o God
  • Out of the deep
  • Nolo mortem peccatoris
  • (The) Lord's Prayer
  • Hide not thou thy face
  • Blessed art thou
  • I will exalt thee
  • Purge me, O Lord
  • O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit
  • I call and cry to thee
  • (The) Lord's Prayer

This anthology strikes a blow for progress. Most musicians, pressed to nominate a Golden Age of English church music, would, I imagine, plump for the Elizabethans. They might add that another peak-period arose in the age of Purcell, and that a revival of standards came in with Stanford and Parry, to be sustained by Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and worthies of lesser note. A dip in mid seventeenth century and a prolonged one throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth would be implied by this, and consideration of the present would involve umming and ahhing in various shades of gloomy doubt. The musical but previously uninformed listener to these records, however, may emerge with a very different impression. The Elizabethans, it might be thought, were worthy but dull; interest quickens with Purcell; but the fun really starts with Wesley and, for that matter, Ouseley; in the first half of the present century the English anthem comes of age at last and in the last 30 years has achieved full maturity.
The selection of material may have something to do with such an impression. Orlando Gibbons, for instance, would have been represented as a livelier composer had his Hosanna to the Son of David been added alongside Weelkes's; Purcell's achievements might have been more clearly recognized had one of his best verse-anthems been included. But far more potent here than selection is performance. Performances of the early music in these volumes are exceedingly dull, and one could almost fancy that it is another choir that sings from Vol. 3 onwards, keeping its pieces de resistance in reserve till the end.
Treatment of the Elizabethans cannot perhaps be called perfunctory because, after all, it is not music that 'sings itself': a choir that is not fully alert will not get through these pieces at all. Leads are in place, cadences are tidy and so forth. But the style woefully lacks imagination. Tempo varies little from one anthem to another, and the stolid mezzo forte rarely gives place to anything that registers as a genuine piano or a genuine forte. Structure seems scarcely to enter into consideration. If in doubt one turns to comparisons, all of which tell the same story. Tallis's Purge me, o Lord, for instance, is given far more meaning by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell (CD) CDGIM107, 12/86), and by quite simple means. They take it a shade faster which aids them in differentiating between important and unstressed syllables so that the words are perceived as saying something that might matter. When the basses enter with ''affirm the truth'' a new emphasis and spirit come into play, and the repeat of the ''And that done'' section is quieter and gains effectiveness by contrast. In O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit (on the same Gimell disc) the comparison shows up a dullness of texture, so that with The Tallis Scholars the imitative phrases in tenor and bass are duly clarified, while with Magdalen they merge into the general fabric, dully camouflaged. Salisbury Cathedral Choir sing Weelkes's Hosanna to the Son of David in their Anthems For America (Meridian (CD) CDE84180, 11/90) and despite some edgy tone they are far more appreciative of its rhythmic life. Magdalen never seem to realize the value of a semi-staccato touch in certain phrases: for instance, ''that cometh in the name'' in that anthem, or on the very first word of Byrd's Sing Joyfully, a point well made (along with many others) by the Cambridge Singers in their recording (Collegium (CD) CSCD500, 4/90).
Comparisons begin to work the other way when it comes to Purcell's I was glad. There is a good performance by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (Conifer (CD) CDCF152, 9/87), but here for the first time Magdalen point the rhythm more sharply and the organ accompaniment adds a welcome brightness. Fairly soon after that, they relapse, but with Wesley's Blessed be the God an altogether more sensitive style emerges (with a good treble soloist in Robin Blaze, who also does well in The Wilderness). The anthems by Ouseley seem to have enjoyed exactly the sort of editorial attention the Tudor masters lacked. My soul, there is a country of Parry, Bairstow's Blessed city and the Howells, Holst and Walton anthems all have excellent performances. Holst's The Evening-watch contains the first 'cluster-chords', which become so important in the music in which the choir is at its best. Jonathan Harvey's Come, Holy Ghost at the start of Vol. 5 shows exactly where the real creative energy has been concentrated. The whole of this fifth volume, including difficult but rich pieces by John Harper, the present Director and Informator Choristorum, is sung with the skill of a virtuoso choir and with imaginative direction to match.
Recorded sound is clear though not quite full-bodied enough to cajole you into forgetting that it is recorded. The booklets have stimulating if slightly didactic notes by the Director, and each displays a different view of the Chapel from Ackermann's time to the present day.'

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