The Song of the Stars
It’s impossible to express too emphatically just how good the girls of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia sound on this new collection of music for upper voices. The 24 singers together create a sound that is both blended and impeccably balanced, completely consistent throughout widely varied repertoire, but also capable of such constant reinvention. Now forthright and declamatory for Tavener, then misty and soft-focus for James MacMillan, the musicianship of these young performers far outstrips their years.
Under the skilled direction of Christopher Finch, the Choralia present a collection of music by 20th- and 21st-century British composers, from Holst to Bob Chilcott, Tarik O’Regan and John Tavener. Most of the works are by living composers, and over the half the tracks on the album are premiere recordings – redressing a long-held imbalance in the recording catalogue that finds upper-voice repertoire severely under-represented.
It’s an attractive and varied programme, not neglecting the familiar (Holst’s Ave Maria and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda) but also introducing a careful selection of modern classics-in-the-making. Works by MacMillan and O’Regan emerge particularly strongly, asserting distinctive personalities, whether in O’Regan’s meticulously layered, filigree textures (Alleluia, laus et gloria) or MacMillan’s modern reinvention of medieval sources (Columba aspexit). Two Tavener premieres are also of interest, the contrast between the thick simplicity and sound-webs of Theotóke and the spare melodic arcs of the Agnus Dei from the Missa brevis reflecting two of the composer’s musical personas, with a third added by the complex narrative unfolding of the Ikon of Saint Hilda.
This is an exceptional album, both in concept and execution. With plenty more upper-voices repertoire to explore, I can only hope that this is the start of a continuing relationship with Naxos. What would these intelligent young musicians make of Caplet’s extraordinary Le miroir de Jésus, for example, I wonder?