"With its delicate canopies of alabaster, and sculptures wrought in bold relief, its inlay of choice marbles, its redundance of costly stones, and its attendant angel figures, it enshrines a multitude of ideas well harmonizing with its place and purpose." Thus is described the reredos of Exeter Cathedral, only feet away from the space where this recording was captured, and upon which is depicted a celebrated scene of the Ascension of Our Lord. How fitting it is, therefore, that this choral programme begins with one of the most arresting and buoyant pieces written for the Ascension: The Lord goes up with shouts of joy, from the pen of polymath musician, Francis Grier. In a swinging 6/8 metre, Grier’s depiction of a paraphrase text based on Psalm 47 immediately invites the listener into the drama of the Ascension. The use of cross-rhythms and accents, together with very particular choral textures spanning a wide tessitura, is coloured further by the internal repetition of the syllables in the word ‘Alleluia’, perhaps recalling glossolalia.
Eric Whitacre’s setting of Octavio Paz’s haunting text A Boy and a Girl immediately presents an effective use of whole-tone motion and of the dissonance of the interval of a 2nd. Within a tonal framework, the occasional appearance of certain chromaticisms underscores the interest of the text, while all the time Whitacre’s musical language (for which he has enjoyed an impressive rise to fame) is unmistakeable. The sensuousness and sensuality of his choral writing has appealed hugely to contemporary audiences and choirs alike.
Written in the warm key of D flat major, Matthew Cann’s beautifully serene and contained setting of the Compline Responsory In manus tuas is made up of individual cell phrases that develop using an additive process, with the tension of dissonance always being resolved back to the home key. This motet dates from 1999 and was first broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from Norwich Cathedral in 2003.
Part of the appeal of this recording has been the opportunity to showcase new works, and to promote works by contemporary composers. The first of the two pieces by Exeter composer Graham Keitch, O nata lux, celebrates an ecstatic text for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Keitch’s expansive musical language unfolds with effective dialogue between choral textures of varying sizes, and, while one senses the world of medieval monophony is never far away, the piece is shot through with richness of sound and a keen ear to the text.
Central to the act of penitence on Good Friday afternoon in the Western Church, and significant in the Eastern Church also, the â€˜Improperiaâ€™, or Reproaches, are formed of a sequence of macaronic (Greek and Latin) texts that were codified in medieval times. They recall the spirit of the psalmist in Psalm 22, and the great diaspora cry of Exodus, the weight of the Hebrew canon resting on Jesus in his salvific act of being crucified. The text contains the Trisagion, the theology of which reminds us of the human confusion of the Atonement: how great is God, even, and because of, sending his Son to die for humankind. The musical setting by John Sanders draws the emotive power of the text to the fore, and is an essay in contrasts of dynamic and texture. First published in 1993 (yet firmly established in the Gloucester repertoire from the mid/late 1980’s, during which time Sanders was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Gloucester Cathedral) his English setting of the Reproaches has gained, rightfully, a favourite and much-loved place in the world-wide Anglican choral tradition.
‘The Enigma I will not explain – its dark saying must be left unguessed’ – thus wrote Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) about his orchestral work Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) Op.36. The origins of the work have a charming account: on the evening of 21 October 1898, Elgar improvised a melody at the piano which he then embellished according to his perception of the personality traits of his friends. On the evening of 19 June 1899, the world heard the resulting set of variations, played by the Hallé Orchestra under the baton of Hans Richter, each variation dedicated in Elgar’s words ‘to my friends pictured within.’
From this touching set of personal movements comes Nimrod, a miniature that, within seconds, succeeds to encapsulate and express that world of Edwardianism, where restraint appears to be in perfect balance with feeling. The movement is dedicated to Elgar’s ‘dearest and truest friend’ Augustus Johannes Jaeger (‘Jäger’ is the German for ‘hunter’, and the ‘mighty hunter before the Lord’ in the Book of Genesis is, of course, Nimrod). Beautifully described by Elgar scholar Diana McVeagh as being ‘among Elgar’s most impassioned utterances, a great-hearted melody’, Nimrod is heard here in an arrangement by John Cameron, setting the Lux aeterna text that forms the communion Proper from the Mass for the Dead.
We return again to the work of Antiphon’s director, Matthew Cann, whose setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, dates from 2012. The inscription of the dedicatee’s identity of each canticle reminds us of Elgar’s method of using initials only, making the dedication ultimately personal. The Magnificat is dedicated to Great Gran (Myrtle Mortimore), and the Nunc dimittis to a former member of Exeter Cathedral Choir, Phil Hobbs. A plainsong-inspired melody, rooted in the Lydian mode, sets the odd-numbered verses of text, while a fauxbourdon texture is used for the even-numbered verses. To modern ears, the raised fourth degree of the scale becomes a consistent aural ‘hook’ in both movements, while its descending, semitonal counterpart forms a strong contrary motion with the bass voice. Particularly effective is the close weave of the soprano and alto quartet at ‘He remembering his mercy’, and the dramatic harmonic shift at the Gloria Patri.
Graham Keitch’s O sacrum convivium was written in 2013. The piece is a tableau that unfolds with the text, making use of textures ranging from plainsong-inspired monody to sumptuous eight-part chording. The richness of the writing is further heightened by a considerable dynamic range. The text, assigned in the Roman tradition as the Magnificat antiphon at Vespers for the Feast of Corpus Christi, is thought to have originated with St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The words celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist where the human concept of taking bread and wine at the mortal Last Supper is transfigured into a spiritual oneness - the ‘sacred banquet’ - with the life, death, flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
While not a liturgical text, Linda Gregg’s Fishing in the Keep of Silence, set to music by Paul Carey, marries God and nature, and specifically Tomales Bay in Marin County, California, famous for its natural beauty and oyster fishing. A graduate of Yale University, Carey is a wide-ranging musician and clinician (who is published by Oxford University Press among others), whose compositions are known for their warmth of expression. This quality can certainly be heard in this work, where the stillness of the text is mirrored so carefully and effectively.
African-American spirituals have long been a source of inspiration for composers and arrangers. The themes, so often inexorably tied to the very essence of the human condition, are intensified by melodies that seem to come from the ground of our being. Married in evangelical Christian zeal, this combination is a potent force of expression that seems unaffected by time. Erik Meyer’s I want Jesus to walk with me, from his Three African-American Spirituals, dates from 2011, and it sets a spiritual that comes from the cry for freedom from slavery in the 19th century. Meyer’s setting treats the modality of the melody with a combination of ‘blue’ chromaticism and gentle rhythmic drive, and he successfully captures a Gospel spirit in this attractive arrangement.
Digby Mackworth Dolben’s life was tragically cut short when he drowned at the age of nineteen. His personality struck a somewhat Brideshead-esque note: he was an intellectual Romantic who challenged social mores, a youth with indeterminate sexual orientation, and a young man of Protestant formation who developed an attraction to the extrovert outward symbol and action of the High Church Movement. Arguably it is through the encouragement of his cousin, Robert Bridges, that Dolben achieved literary attention, and, for one untouched by the wealth of adult human experience, his carol-poem Flowers for the Altar shows both a literary command and a deep theological reasoning. Jesus’ journey from the manger to the cross (the sacrificial altar, adorned in churches with flowers) is unified by one thing: love. The words are beautifully set by Eric William Barnum, who is currently the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and who received his doctorate in choral conducting at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dating from 2009, Flowers for the Altar was a special commission for Timothy Campbell and the Coro Vocal Artists, Tucson.
First published in 1707, the famous hymn When I survey the wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts has become an established part of the tradition of Christian song across many denominations. Watts’s hymnody is rooted in the evangelical passion of his Nonconformist formation, and gave rise to his writing many hundreds of hymns. His theology in this text transcends many doctrinal differences, and unites the living presence of Christians as heirs of salvation in the Passion; indeed, it is one of the most powerful texts on the Passion that places Christ’s human suffering alongside our own (‘Then I am dead to all the globe, and all the globe is dead to me.’) Yet, the universal glory of the Passion unfolds in the final stanza, and the instruments of death and pain are themselves transported by their proximity to the Lord (‘wondrous cross’, ‘or thorns compose so rich a crown’.) This is not an easy text to set musically, but, in the hands of Edgar Day, who was assistant organist of Worcester Cathedral from 1912-1962, the wealth of the words is amplified by a heartfelt and rich musical setting.© David Davies, 2015
Formed in 2011, Antiphon has made Buckfast Abbey in Devon its most regular home for concerts and recitals. Initially, Antiphon performed three concerts a year, meeting on the day of the concert to rehearse and then perform. Today, the choir’s home is Exeter and concerts are given in the Cathedral as well as at Buckfast Abbey. Members of the choir comprise both full and part-time singers, many professional. Under its present Director, Matthew Cann, the choir now meets on a regular basis and enjoys performing a wide ranging repertoire of old and new music. Their reputation is well known and critically acclaimed in the West Country and beyond.
Matthew Cann was educated at e King's School, Gloucester. Whilst there, he was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral,progressing to head chorister under the direction of Dr John Sanders. Matthew took part in the rst performance andbroadcast of the Sanders Reproaches and as head chorister, gained the experience in singing in the famous ree ChoirsFestivals that took place in Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. His further education took him to Colchester to studypiano and voice where he gained a rst in piano performance. After Colchester he went to Oxford where he gained hispost-graduate teaching diploma in secondary music.
Once his education was nished, he became a Lay Clerk at Norwich Cathedral, as well as teaching piano and being anexaminer for the Royal School of Church Music. He has been a Lay Vicar of Exeter Cathedral Choir since September2006 and is a piano and singing teacher at Exeter School. During his time at Gloucester, Norwich and ExeterCathedrals he has been involved in numerous television appearances, radio broadcasts, tours and recordings. He hassung in front of Royalty and through those choirs worked with such prominent composers as the late John Taverner andArvo Pärt. He writes mainly for unaccompanied choir and has had his anthem In manus tuas, (featured on thisrecording) broadcast on BBC Radio 3. As well as directing Antiphon, he has been a guest conductor for Buckfast AbbeyChoir, e St. Peter's Singers of Exeter Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral Choir.
“Some of the best choral singing I’ve heard in 40 years.” – Lucien Nethsingha, former Director of Music, Exeter Cathedral
"O nata lux has been interpreted exactly as I would have wished. O sacrum convivium too - although only the best of choirs could achieve the level of spaciousness you've managed to give it." - Graham Keitch
"It's beautiful! Well sung and perfectly recorded." - Erik Meyer