Hugh Benham’s Sacred Choral Music (CR050)
Review by Marjorie Johnston, Association of Anglican Musicians
It is always a pleasure to receive compact discs in the mail from Adrian Green, the Managing Director at Convivium Records, as high quality is a given, as is a friendly, handwritten note. In this case, I am in his debt for reminding me to stay aware of the music of Dr. Hugh Benham. This gifted composer is equally accomplished as a writer, having written textbooks and academic articles during his career as an educator. He is a Tudor church music scholar and has edited the complete works of sixteenth-century composer, John Taverner, for the Stainer & Bell series, “Early English Church Music”.
My high expectations were met without delay on the first of twenty two tracks, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”, which presents a terrific new hymn tune to the beloved John Newton text. Only the third verse takes a path of its own, showing off some isolated a cappella singing as well as some colourful writing for the organ. The organ is an equal partner, and Malcolm Archer’s playing syncs perfectly with conductor and choir. The extended penultimate chord on the “Amen” is fabulous and bold, making the listener wait with excitement for the final resolution.
Another solid anthem follows with a fresh take on Charles Wesley’s text, “Love’s Redeeming Work Is Done.” Unlike the setting to Savannah in our Hymnal 1982, all five verses are present, and for my taste, the stronger musical setting complements the poetry more aptly as well.
I was pleased to see an “Evening Service in G for Unison Upper Voices” on the track list, hoping to recommend participation for children’s voices, and indeed I can. Both movements weave melodies based on the pentatonic scale, but neither of the two movements should be taken lightly. I especially like the wide intervals in the Magnificat and the calm ending of the Nunc Dimittis. The challenges here are ones most RSCM choristers would eagerly meet and, of course, they would also be embraced by adult sopranos and altos.
“Trinity Voluntary” is a regal piece for organ and is recommended for either recital or a procession out. The ABA structure and the use of triplets brought about its title. Additionally, two short organ pieces for manuals only are included on the disc, and they provide a nice contrast at tracks seven and eight preceding a fine mass setting, “mass Veni Creator Spiritus”. Here Dr. Benham pays homage to John Taverner and other Renaissance composers, using sixteenth-century techniques throughout. I’m not convinced that the placement on the disc (30 minutes into the 75 minute recording) serves this significant piece well. Even an engaged listener’s mind and ear could be getting a bit weary just at the heart of the recording. The mass is about 15 minutes long on its own, so I would only suggest a brief intermission to give the mass its rightful attention.
Some works on the recording are not feasible for all church choirs, but we are all the better for listening to them. The time may come or come again when those works are feasible. The stunning a capella setting of “O Sacrum Convivium II” could fall into that category for some AAM members. The choral writing is dense and great finesse is required of the soloists, making this the ideal moment to praise the incredible Convivium Singers. These eighteen singers are in their element on this recording, and there’s really nothing to critique about their performance, either individually or as an ensemble. Even though they were headliners on another recording I recently reviewed, I could not resist another project in which they are featured. I suspect they can do virtually anything that is asked of them, and it can’t hurt to have the brilliant, young Alexander Norman at the helm. What a treat it would be to hear them live one day.
Looking hopefully ahead to Christmas and Epiphany, there are several good options I commend for your personal review: “Love Came Down At Christmas,” “Divinum mysterium,” “When Christ Was Born,” and finally, my favourite track, the 2014 motet “Ave Maria.” It is a cappella and, as Dr. Benham notes, Gabriel’s greeting is homophonic. The writing is warm and lush, yet still distinctive; then, when the text turns toward our plea for Mary’s intercession, the music changes to become a bit more stark, with chromaticism and some dissonance and imitative writing. There is no way to predict the chord progressions, yet they make sense, and we end up in the original key. I think this wee gem lasting only two and a half minutes would be a pleasure to sing or conduct.
One cannot start that behind every generous melody or innovative harmony is a music theory master, but so often that seems to be the case. The theorists of the world prove that knowing how to codify the mechanics of composition can and often do go hand in hand with expressive and poignant musical moments, and I greatly admire Dr. Benham’s writing with this in mind.
I could write a separate glowing review just on the CD liner notes. Even as technology moves on, and more and more music is accessed electronically, there’s just something about a beautifully produced little booklet that you can hold in your hand. Several aspects separate this booklet from many others: the font is readable (not too small); the text is rarely displayed on top of photographs, and when it is, colour contrast successfully sets it in relief; there is plenty of space between lines, paragraphs, lists, etc.; there is interesting and useful information about each track; dedications and the circumstances under which it was written; highlighted text painting; and historical information that anticipates questions the listener may have. The recording offers music both suitable for amateur and professional choirs, and the producers have even listed the works that were composed for larger worship spaces, noting that “everything is primarily for ‘devotional listening.’” (Devotional listening may resonate even more with church musicians who are now wondering when their choirs will sing together again, due to the COVID-19 crisis.) The photographs of the artists accompanying the programme notes are exceptional, as well. No one is awkwardly holding a baton up near his face; no one is gesturing like Endora exiting a scene in “Bewitched.” They all look like normal people-they are normal people! Each one is a “name” in the church music world, but there is not a hint of presumptuousness in the faces of these musicians. Photographer Mike Cooter captured images that show congenial, approachable church folk, who like us, aspire to offer their best gifts. They clearly have done so in this excellent recording. Highly Recommended.
Marjorie Johnston, The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, September 2020