We have here 86 minutes of wonderful sacred music, beautifully performed in 2021 by one of England’s leading choirs, at St Alban the Martyr, Birmingham. Everything is of considerable originality, sensitivity and integrity. These discs are highly recommended as devotional listening for all, and as opportunities for other accomplished choirs to extend their repertoires with new material of freshness and excellence. Much has already proved itself in performance, especially at Royal Holloway, St Bartholomew the Great in London, and Portsmouth Cathedral.
The composer George Arthur is (as George Richford) one of our most recent recipients of the LGCM, and his name will be familiar from other references in this magazine. Those readers who know the Guild’s Welcome Yule anthology, will already have come across his setting of This Dancing Day, a Christmas piece that is included in the second CD of All Angels.
(A parenthesis before considering the music itself. Convivium Records has again produced a ‘digipack’ to avoid or drastically reduce the use of plastic. Environmentally friendly also is the lack of a printed booklet with notes on the music – this can instead be accessed freely via QR code or at the Convivium Records website, although anyone who prefers to avoid the internet is not specifically provided for.)
The first CD, entirely a cappella, includes a Missa Brevis and a setting of the evening canticles, and five other pieces, two with Latin texts, the other three with English words. The second CD consists of music specifically or principally for Christmas. I began by listening to the second CD, perhaps because I particularly looked forward to hearing This Dancing Day. The music really does dance, and has a delightful mixture of unison, homophonic and contrapuntal textures; and everything is entirely on the ‘white notes’, but without any feeling that there is a surfeit of C major.
The Three Christmas Carols (2019) use familiar medieval texts: I syng of a Mayden, Susanni and Balulalow. All three have much rhythmic life coupled with a highly resourceful use of limited melodic material. Any of these pieces could be used separately at a carol service, but it isn’t clear if they are published (something which applies to other items apart from This Dancing Day).
The remaining pieces on CD 2 are all entitled Speciosa, with roman numerals I–X. Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols comes inevitably to the listener’s mind (it was in the composer’s mind from the outset). A harp is used to accompany some items, plus an instrumental interlude (Speciosa VI). Upper voices are used. The title ‘Speciosa’ – meaning ‘beautiful’ – comes from a Latin sequence ‘Stabat Mater speciosa’ (not to be confused with much more widely known ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’). Some verses from the ‘…speciosa’ sequence are set, interspersed with a varied selection of English texts from very early ones to a poem by the 17th-century Richard Crashaw (Speciosa IX). Regarding the music, the phrase ‘hauntingly beautiful’ is an attempt to express the inexpressible. The conception of this work during the isolation of the 2020 lockdown perhaps contributed to the sense of distance and removal from everyday ‘busy-ness’. The work is unlikely to rival Britten’s Ceremony, so ‘immediate’ a work, but I sense in Speciosa a very special depth.
The Friday Service (composed for Portsmouth Cathedral, 2017) is described by George Arthur as a ‘straight-forward, but individual composition that can be performed with limited rehearsal time’. There is much homophony, but some contrapuntal flowering, and very effectively no break before the Gloria of the Magnificat. In the Nunc Dimittis there is no sudden or explosive effect at the word ‘light’, but a far more subtle building. The harmony is partly triadic, but much is gently, never aggressively, dissonant.
The (Latin-texted) Missa Brevis of 2019 (about 9 minutes in length) was first performed at St Bartholomew the Great under Rupert Gough that year. It shows the kind of thematic economy referred to in the three Carols. It is more contrapuntal than the Friday Service and the harmony strikes me as a little more astringent.
Ave maris stella and Ave Maria are the other Latin-texted pieces. They are two of three ‘devotional works which also double as “test” pieces for choral competitions’ (probing particular aspects of tuning, balance and tone). Indeed, the Ave Maria, at just over 10 minutes in length, might be difficult to accommodate liturgically. Even the setting of Ave maris stella is nearly 6 minutes long. The harmonic language of both (further described by George Arthur in his programme note) is – at least to my mind – quietly ecstatic, with a subtle exploration of that vast space beyond traditional tonality.
The three remaining pieces have English words. From Dust, the opening track, sets part of Thomas Traherne’s The Salutation. The second half of the text may be familiar to listeners from the quite different setting by Gerald Finzi in Dies natalis. The work, meditative and exultant at different moments, was first performed in 2019 in the USA. The closing track is One in Christ, a setting of words from the Anglican Common Worship Post-Communion prayer beginning ‘Father of all, we give you thanks and praise’; the words of the title are not actually taken directly from the prayer, but ‘say it all’. The work has been widely performed and has been broadcast. It has a very special spiritual potency.
The title-track All Angels has text from the Book of Revelation (I think from chapters 8 and 5 – but perhaps George Arthur was aware also of Hardy’s poem ‘And there was a great calm’, the very words which begin the piece). Again the words of the title All Angels are not actually set as such. The work dates from the composer’s time as director of music at Romsey Abbey in the 2010s. He writes: ‘It uses an unusual detached technique of dynamics and dissonance to create a feeling of intensity’.
Intensity of religious conviction and musical inspiration shine through and through this memorable recording.