Hugh Benham’s Sacred Choral Music (CR050)
Review by Colin Clarke, Fanfare
Having enjoyed a disc of music by Clive Osgood on the Convivium label (reviewed elsewhere in the present issue), it was an equal pleasure to be introduced to the music of Hugh Benham. A graduate of the University of Southampton in the UK, as a writer, Benham has published extensively on Tudor church music.
While there are enjoyable biographies of Benham, director of music Alexander Norman and organist Malcolm Archer in the booklet, perhaps a little more information on the individual pieces could have been included (we get only a few lines prior to the texts). This music sits firmly in the English cathedral choir tradition, often hymnic and devotional, and always full of beauty. Benham variegates his pieces well, light and shade carefully calibrated, something in evidence in both of the opening pieces, Glorious Things of Theeare spoken (text John Newton) and Love’s redeeming work (text Charles Wesley). Unexpected harmonic feints are a part of Benham’s vocabulary, as in the soloist’s contribution to Love’s redeeming work (beautifully done by the choir’s Eve McGrath and Alistair Donaghue), rising his music up from the norm.
Rather nicely, Ubi Caritas (Where there’s love) uses both Latin (for the plainchant melody) and English, hence the use of both languages in the work’s full title. The sung Latin, from the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday, parts stick closely to the plainchant melody, while the hymnic English passages are freer in inspiration. Another piece to take inspiration from a plainchant is Divinum Mysterium, whose melody hints at the original initially before stating it fully towards the end. Particularly notable here are the exchanges in the fourth stanza, where the composer differentiates the descriptive nature of “The angels sang the shepherds to:” and the quoted text “Gloria in excelsis Deo”.
Hearing the choir alone, sans organ, is a delight in Ave Maria, especially when the music opens out into counterpoint at the end. After several items with organ, the effect is of a heightened purity. While Love came down at Christmasmight seem to be season-specific, the piece can be performed also at Epiphany. The music indeed exudes the warmth of much Christmas music, and is heard in a beautifully balanced rendition here by Convivium Singers (When Christ was born has a similar effect).
The organ pieces Chant Donné and Basse Donnée offer serene contrast. Composed for manuals only and in four parts, they were inspired by study of Soixante-Quatre Leçons d’Harmonie … en homage à Jean Gallonand in particular the Chant Donné by Duruflé. They also, in the context of this program, demarcate and prepare for the piece that lies at the center of the disc, the Mass, Veni, Creator Spiritus. Heavily influenced by Renaissance polyphony, in particular the works of John Taverner (c1495-1545), again plainchant finds its way into the work, this time Veni, Creator Spiritus. Benham also parodies himself in the manner of that time. The solo contributions here are fabulous, perhaps especially notably Bridget Kerrison’s pure soprano or in the solo contributions to the ‘Benedictus,” while there is a splendid sense of light at the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” of the “Gloria”. Hearing the rousing Trinity Voluntary immediately after the Mass balances those organ pieces of earlier. Malcolm Archer is the superb organist; his interiorizing way with the central minor-mode section of the Voluntary is most effective.
The disc concludes with a sequence of shorter pieces. No missing the hymnic nature of Praise to God and Every day we meet with Christ, but perhaps it is the quiet devotion of O Scarum Convivium II that impresses most (the composer acknowledges the influence of Baltic composers in this recent, 2019, piece), the freshness of the soprano line of the “Magnificat” of the Evening Service offering contrasting balm to the soul. This Evening Service is scored only for upper voices with a glittering organ part; together they conspire to provide a glowing “Glory be to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost”.
The beauty of both A Prayer of St John Chrysostom (an intimate piece with organ and solo voices from the choir) and the unaccompanied anthem God be in My Head seem to point at the very heart of Benham’s expressive world; the sheer mystery of the choral pianissimo in the latter piece is breath-taking. The disc ends with a rousing setting from George Herbert, Teach me, my God and King.
A splendid disc, well recorded.
Colin Clarke, Fanfare, January 2020