CD Reviews

The Armour of Light: The choral music of Gary Davison

Gary Davison is organist and choirmaster of Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and maintains an active schedule as a solo and collaborative keyboard artist and particularly enjoys a close musical relationship as a composer with Wells Cathedral. This association would be no bad thing for any composer for under organist and Master of Choristers Matthew Owens Wells Cathedral Choir has become one of the finest in the world. This CD is the first recording entirely devoted to Gary Davison’s choral music and all the works are receiving their first commercial recording. As expected the choir do them full justice and the audio quality, courtesy of producer Gary Cole, is equally good. The music can be appreciated on several levels. As a listener I enjoy a good tune and Davison delivers and as a member of a choir (albeit not one of the standard of Wells Cathedral) I am always listening for material I can recommend and again this CD fits the bill. Thomas Campion’s “Never Weather-Beaten Sail” is one of my favourite poems and Davison’s setting fits it well. “The Palace Garden Canticles”, a setting of the traditional Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis is another highlight. The Palace here is not Wells but rather the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, Virginia. The choir is joined by Simon Jones blowing his trumpet and the combination is excellent. The Wells Service was written for Matthew Owens and the Vicars Choral of Wells Cathedral. The Te Deum dates back to the seventh century Antiphony of Bangor from Northern Ireland and contrasts well with the lively Jubilate Deo. Davison knows his history and is able to make his contemporary work sit securely within the Anglican choral tradition. Listeners who appreciate this genre will find much to enjoy in this collection. (Reviewed by Steven Whitehead, crossrhythms.co.uk)

The American composer, Gary Davison is someone who is clearly steeped in the Anglican/Episcopal musical tradition, not just as a composer but also as an active executant. He’s been Organist and Choirmaster of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland for some years. The roots of this present disc lie in a sabbatical period that he spent in the UK in 2006 during which he went to hear a number of cathedral and collegiate choirs sing services. One stop on his journey was in Wells where, he says, he found a particularly warm welcome. His admiration for Matthew Owens and the fine Wells Cathedral choir has inspired him to write several pieces for them and a number of them are included on this programme.

The choir at Wells includes 12 adult male singers – the Vicars Choral; there are four each of altos, tenors and basses. For some years now the choir has benefited from having not only 18 boy trebles but also a similar number of girl choristers. Each of these groups sing services regularly with the Vicars Choral and sometimes the boys and girls sections are involved together. On this occasion, however, it’s the girls who sing with the Vicars Choral and a very pleasing sound these young voices make.

At the risk of stating the obvious The Wells Service was composed for this choir. I don’t know if Davison also wrote a ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’. The Te Deum and Jubilate are for men’s voices with organ. The Te Deum mixes sections of strong music with more reflective passages. I like the way that Davison brings the piece to a subdued close with solo voices, reminding us that the final lines of the hymn are short prayers of intercession. . The Jubilate is, for the most part, a robust setting. Also written for Wells was Glory to thee, my God, this night. In fact this was the first piece that Davison composed for the choir and fittingly he selected familiar words by Thomas Ken (1637-1711), who was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1685 to 1691. The piece is mainly tranquil and Davison is careful to avoid making the piece a simple strophic setting.

Davison also celebrates his connection to St. Francis Episcopal Church in this programme. The piece which gives the album its title, The Armour of Light, was commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rector of that church, Rev William M Shand III, which occurred, I believe, in 2007. Rev. Shand retired earlier this year after serving the church of St Francis since 1987. For this piece Davison takes passages from the New Testament in William Tyndale’s translation. A distant, unaccompanied semi chorus sings the scriptural verses while the main choir, accompanied by organ, sings a refrain between each verse as well as the last verse. It’s an effective piece. Rev. Shand is the dedicatee of The Banffshire Mass. This is a concise Missa Brevis – there’s no Creed – set in English for unaccompanied SATB choir.

The programme includes two sets of evening canticles. The Santa Fe Canticles are for trebles, manly singing in unison, and organ. The music is inspired by Davison’s experience of hearing flamenco during a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Magnificat is lively with exciting interjections and accompaniment from the organ while the Nunc dimittis is more reflective in tone. The Palace Garden Canticles are so entitled because they were written to mark the 35th wedding anniversary of a couple. The prospective groom proposed in the garden of the splendid Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was also an amateur trumpeter and so, unusually, Davison included a prominent part for that instrument in his canticles. The settings strike me as being very successful anyway but the addition to the textures of the shining tone of the trumpet is a significant bonus.

All the music on this disc is attractive and well-crafted though I have to say it doesn’t appear to break much new ground. However, the pieces are very accessible and I’m sure will appeal to choirs and congregations alike, which is surely what Gary Davison intended: this is music written for practical use in the liturgy. His music is given splendid advocacy by Matthew Owens and his fine choir – one would expect nothing less – and Jonathan Vaughn makes an expert contribution at the organ, including an exuberant account of the solo organ work, Trumpet Rondo on ‘Laudes Domini’.

The recorded sound is good and Tom Shorter contributes some useful notes on the music. It’s a minor irritant, however, that the booklet doesn’t include the dates of composition of the individual pieces. It’s possible to infer one or two dates and those written for Wells Cathedral must date from after 2006. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that this basic information could not have been supplied. (John Quinn, musicweb-international.com)

Steeped in the rich Anglican choral tradition, American composer, Gary Davison, is one of the US’s leading composers of sacred choral music. He brings a deep love of this heritage to all of his writing. Through the lens of the post-modern era, he embraces many of the modal and tonal techniques of Western music to inform his own artistry. Performers and audiences alike admire his compositional style for its idiomatic expression and freshness of voice. Critical acclaim supports this esteem with such descriptions of his work as “persuasive … imaginative and polished … sumptuous and engaging” (The Washington Post); “seductive and spirited … smooth, flexible and clear, allowing the music to shine from within” (Hamburger Abendblatt, Germany); as well as “breathtaking and exquisite … exactly the kind of rewarding challenge singers love best.” (The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians)
‘Matthew Owens is second to none in his championing of living composers. Here with the girl choristers and Vicars Choral of Wells Cathedral, he introduces us to the music of American composer Gary Davison…Davison’s greatest strength is a deep understanding of a sacred text, which informs his writing…There is an uncluttered, harmonic appeal to his writing…This distinguished cathedral choir is in excellent voice, enhanced by the creative playing of Jonathan Vaughn.’ (Choir and Organ November/December 2015)

Gary Davison is Organist and Choirmaster of Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and maintains an active schedule as a solo and collaborative keyboard artist, and particularly enjoys a close musical relationship as a composer with Wells Cathedral.

This is the first recoding entirely devoted to Gary Davison’s choral music, and is sung by the renowned choir of Wells Cathedral, conducted by Matthew Owens. All the works are receiving their first commercial recording.

This is Wells Cathedral Choir’s sixth recording on the Regent Records’ label, and previous releases have all received superlative critical acclaim.

‘Overall a very polished recording of some beautiful music. The singing was excellent…’ (Sydney Organ Journal Spring 2015)

Since he first visited Wells nine years ago the American composer Gary Davison has had a special relationship with the cathedral and its singers, who deliver now the first CD completely devoted to his music. Davison is a choirmaster himself, and it shows in the user-friendliness of his writing: the glowing harmonies and grateful melodies of My Song Shall be Always are clearly relished by the girl choristers in particular.

The influence of John Tavener is discernible in the drone-like foundation material in The Armour of Light, but the piece develops a voice of its own, with evocative use of a semi-chorus, touchingly realised here by the small group of selected singers. The compact Banffshire Mass, an unaccompanied setting, tests both the choirs pitching and its ability to keep ensemble tight as text is zipped though briskly by the composer. Both tests are confidently negotiated.

The moody chiaroscuro of Davison’s Te Deum, and its moments of surging drama, arc impressively projected, and the Nunc dimittis from Palace Garden Canticles, with ringing trumpet, burgeons thrillingly. There is much substantial music on this disc, all of it realized with unflappable distinction by Matthew Owens and his singers.’ (BBC Music October 2015)

This latest CD release from Wells Cathedral Choir is of the American composer Gary Davison’s

choral music. Steeped in the rich Anglican choral tradition, he is one of the US’s leading composers of sacred choral music. The recording is a mix of anthems, canticles and a mass setting, both accompanied and unaccompanied.

My song shall be alway opens the CD with an unaccompanied setting of verses from psalm 89. Starting softly, the work builds in texture and richness in the voices before phrases freely burst forth. Two other verses repeat this same pattern creating a pleasing start of the CD. Zion, at thy shining gates quickly changes the pace with an exuberant hymn of the anticipation of heaven and Christ’s second coming. This piece creates a sense of excitement with shifting time signatures and the use of the organ’s colours to emphasis the bright mood with the piece finishing off with a rousing conclusion. The organ throughout the CD is played by Jonathan Vaughn who highlights with great skill and excitement the organ’s ability to accompany the choir. Easter was a particular favourite of the listener. This anthem incorporates the choir trebles, organ and the viola. Dedicated to Vaughan Williams, the piece references RVW’s harmonic language. The vocal lines are interspersed with these hauntingly beautiful, rich counter melodies played on the viola.

The Banffshire Mass is an unaccompanied mixed choir mass setting, without Credo. The Kyrie opens with a beautiful solo tune that is then developed with the backing of the full choir before it is reinstated to finish that movement. Similar attention to text throughout and the use of melismas means the movements are unified thematically precisely at the points at which the text intersects. Agnus Dei is a tender movement closing a lovely setting. The Wells Service was written for Matthew Owens and the Vicars Choral of Wells Cathedral.

The Jubilate Deo is a lively and exciting piece which contrasts the Te Deum, which ends in an almost glassy and ethereal sense to the words “in thee have I trusted: Let me never be confounded” The Gloria in the Jubilate Deo also has a mon assured feeling and sense of drive in the writing and pulse.

A solo organ work Trumpet Rondo on ‘Laudes Domini* in round form and gives the listener a good example of the solo reed of the organ. A restful setting of 0 Lord, support us demonstrates some of the beautiful and rich textures of the men’s voices in harmony. The music rising then falling with the text is accompanied with clear and peaceful organ colours. The piece dies away resolving the harmonic tension whilst a soft 32’ purrs underneath.

The two canticles on the CD are Santa Fe and Palace Garden settings, both commissioned for different occasions. Palace Garden incorporates a solo trumpet player which between the voices creates a call and response pattern of leaping melodies in the Magnificat. The Nunc Dimittis almost begins with a mournful feeling which picks up for a busy and energetic Gloria. The organist gets a good workout with many cross rhythms. After a final trumpet flourish the organ concludes with a full organ chord.

Overall a very polished recording of some beautiful music. The singing was excellent and I enjoyed most of the music. The program notes are interesting and the booklet captures a wonderful moment of the building’s architecture and organ case. Owen’s direction and Vaughn’s accompanying make for a wonderful combination. (David Tagg, July 2015)

Matthew Owens is second to none in his championing of living composers. Here with the girl choristers and Vicars Choral of Wells Cathedral, he introduces us to the music of American composer Gary Davison, organist and choirmaster of Saint Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. Davison’s greatest strength is a deep understanding of a sacred text, which informs his writing. Composers don’t develop in isolation and Davison’s influences can be spotted throughout this overview, among them John Tavener and Vaughan Williams. There is an uncluttered, harmonic appeal to his writing,and particularly imaginative are the stunning title track The Armour of Light, Luster for trebles, organ and viola, the settings of The Wells Service for men’s voices and organ, and two contrasting sets of canticles. The Santa Fe Canticles are set for trebles and organ. In the Magnificat, Mary’s joyous response to the Annunciation is expressed in dancing organ patterns, to which the voices respond with a flourish. By contrast, the Magnificat of the Palace Carden Canticles for mixed choir, trumpet and organ starts serenely with a trumpet used in similar vein to Jan Garbarek’s saxophone with The Hilliard Ensemble; but the mood changes quickly, Davison concentrating on the severity of this text and giving the trumpet a dramatic line in a fine piece of writing. This distinguished cathedral choir is in excellent voice, enhanced by the creative playing of Jonathan Vaughn. (Shirley Ratcuffe)

Bob Chilcott: St John Passion

“The Wells Cathedral Choir makes a fine contribution. In particular I liked the sound of the treble line, which is sung by boy and girl choristers. This seems to me an excellent combination because the natural edge of the boys’ voices and the rather rounder soprano tone combine most effectively. Under Matthew Owens’ leadership the Wells choir has established a well-deserved high reputation and this recording is another success for the choir. They display energy and bite when taking the part of the crowd in the Judgement scenes. In the meditations they sing with finesse. The singers are most effectively supported by the instrumentalists and Matthew Owens brings everything together under his guiding hand. I’m sure Bob Chilcott will have been thrilled to find the first recording of this score done with such evident commitment and skill from all concerned.” (John Quinn, for Musicweb International)

“Following on from their excellent recording of Chilcott’s Requiem, Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir have now set down the composer’s St John Passion, which they premiered in 2013……. The results are powerful and compelling, the more so in this authoritative performance, with uniformly excellent soloists and the sensitive organ playing of Jonathan Vaughn…… On the evidence of this fine recording, Chilcott’s St John Passion will connect with audiences and performers.” (Choir and Organ, Philip Reed)

Judith Bingham: Choral Music

The setting of ‘Cantate Domino’ memorably commingles an anxious, questing quality with glimpses of certitude and placidity, a balance sensitively struck in this assured Wells Cathedral Choir performance … ‘Our faith is a light’ is a luminescent setting highlighting the bright, gleaming quality of tone the Wells top line is currently producing. The Hyperion recording is atmospheric and expertly balanced. Recommended” (BBC Music Magazine)

Choral music is a sphere that welcomes the new. The Anglican (mainly) church is a leading source of new commissions for countless composers, among them Judith Bingham (b1952), who stands out not least because she spent her early career as a professional singer and knows the idiom. She favours rich, multilayered radiance, as heard in the two Wells service canticles – written for the excellent choir who perform here. Jonathan Vaughn provides spirited organ accompaniment and interludes. The lullaby setting of God Be in My Head, the abundant interpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Harvest and the unexpectedness of the Bromley Missa brevis, written for an enlightened south London parish church, all play to Bingham’s creative strengths.” (The Observer)

Rating ****. It’s hard to put a finger on what Judith Bingham’s distinctive musical language is, other than to say that her liturgical music is weighted by sacred choral history, yet stands contemporary and unique in personality; it often feels rather other-worldly; it’s accessible without without being ‘easy’. It’s music that makes you prick up your ears and concentrate rather than settling down. The same can be said for the choir of Wells Cathedral, whose crisp, bright sound has been pricking up ears for some years now, most particularly in their recordings for Hyperion of contemporary sacred repertoire”. (Charlotte Gardner, Sinfini Music)

This excellent disc from Wells Cathedral Choir and their boy choristers looks back over fifteen years of Bingham’s choral works, from the delicate ambiguity of the newly-revised Jesum quaeritis Nazarenum to the more forthright ‘Alternative Canticles’ of the Wells Service. There’s a frankness to the Wells choral sound that suits music that has nothing precious or twee about it. It creates an underlying muscularity, even in the glowing cluster-chords of the ‘Cantate Domino’, and foregrounds the texts that Bingham sets with Britten-like care. Bingham’s vocal writing hasn’t been well served on disc, and this collection is the most representative yet of the composer’s functional, liturgical works. It is both contrast and compliment to the BBC Singers’ 2008 ‘Remoter Worlds’ featuring Bingham’s secular settings (Signum, 3/09). The use of a cathedral choir of men and boys (with a guest appearance from the cathedral’s girls’ choir on the final track) rather than a chamber choir helps anchor this music in the Anglican cathedral tradition to which Bingham’s music so consciously belongs.” (Alexandra Coghlan, Gramophone)

Recorded last year in celebration of Judith Bingham’s 60th birthday, this exemplary disc from Wells Cathedral Choir, under their organist and master of choristers Matthew Owens, offers a perfect conspectus of Bingham’s choral output over the last decade. While a versatile all-rounder, Bingham’s period as a professional singer early in her career (she was a member of the BBC Singers for 15 years) has fostered an understandable attraction to choral music as a composer. This CD from Wells includes the Wells Service (2010) as well as other independent choral pieces intended for liturgical use, among which is Corpus Christi Carol, written for inclusion in The Choirbook for the Queen. Most are premiere recordings. All the pieces show Bingham’s responsiveness to text, her expressive use of harmony and innate gift for melody. She has been handsomely served by the Wells forces and by Hyperion. A fine recording, with excellent supporting documentation. Highly recommended”. (Philip Reed, Choir & Organ magazine)

Andrew Stewart’s booklet notes serve as an excellent listening guide. About Ave verum corpus he writes that ‘…rhythmic motifs in the organ and choral writing suggests the weary tread of Jesus on the road to the cross’. The image is a vivid one that certainly helps the listener appreciate the piece, which focuses rather more on Christ’s suffering than do many other settings of this well-known text.

It’s a pleasure to hear the pure and expressive voice of treble Finn Lacey as he delivers the news that Christ is risen in Jesum quaeritis Nazarenum. God be in my head is a lovely piece, with an ingenious solution to the problem of words that are well known in another composer’s setting. Our faith is a light was commissioned by Wells to celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the girls’ choir, and is the only piece in this collection in which the girls sing. Bingham has found an inventive and touching way to exploit the two groups, boys and girls.

Performances and recording are very fine. Most of the music is slow, so selecting one or two pieces at a time will be the best way to appreciate its visionary and profoundly spiritual beauty.” (William Headley, International Record Review)

MacMillan: Choral Music

“Here is another splendid release of recent British choral music from the choir of Wells Cathedral and its superb director Matthew Owens … the choir is, in a word, magnificent. Singing with impressive self-assurance and clearly revelling in MacMillan’s uncanny ability to make everything sound perfectly natural even when the technical skills involved are extraordinarily demanding.” (International Record Review)

“Wells Cathedral Choir gives a compelling survey of choral pieces by one of Britain’s most important composers … MacMillan’s musical voice remains breathtakingly distinctive and true. This disc is a worthy recorded tribute to a truly significant figure in contemporary music. Highly recommended.” (Choir & Organ)

“The Wells singing is of a consistently high standard (MacMillan’s trademark use of melisma is particularly well assimilated) and organist Jonathan Vaughn delivers a scintillating account of Le tombeau de Georges Rouault, the magnificent solo piece which ends this absorbing programme.”  (BBC Music Magazine)

Jingle Wells

“Wells’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best cathedral choirs in the country is further bolstered by the faultless tuning and blend of the strong and broad sound for which its boys are known.” (December 2012, Gramophone)

“The performance is irresistible and above all,superbly sung.” (December 2012, International Record Review)

“Nice title, even nicer singing…Their Jingle Bells is a real belter.”  (BBC Music Magazine)

 “..supple lines, superb blend and subtle expressivity…an ensemble on top form” (Yorkshire Post, December 2012)

“This CD should be in everyone’s Christmas stocking this year- I can’t imagine a better one…”  (Sidney Organ Journal Vol 44 No.1)

Bob Chilcott: Requiem & other works

Impassioned and beautiful performances throughout this delightful disc.” (Gramophone, June 2012)

This is music that is meant and deeply felt … Matthew Owens directs superlative performances from the choir, instrumentalists from the Nash Ensemble and organist Jonathan Vaughn. The engineering places us comfortably in that stunning building.” (International Record Review)

There’s plenty of fluid writing for the choir and two excellent soloists, whose interaction produces ravishing textures.” (BBC Music Magazine)

Chilcott’s Requiem, mostly set to Latin texts, pays homage to its great predecessors yet has its own distinctive, serene, meditative quality, beautifully rendered by the mixed voices of Wells Cathedral Choir, Laurie Ashworth (soprano) and Andrew Staples (tenor).”  (The Observer)

Chilcott writes a tune of such beauty, one is totally beguiled. This disc of premiere recordings reveals the many sides of the composer. His skill, sincerity and practicality shine through … Matthew Owens coaxes scintillating performances from his choristers – it is a choir one would never tire of listening to.”  (Choir & Organ Magazine)

A lovely recording … This is a particularly gorgeous and uplifting work, delivered here with great sensitivity and eloquence. Owens ensures some crisp, immaculate entries, wonderful tonal purity and excitingly varied dynamics.” (The Oxford Times)

Songs of Sunshine

An uplifting and inspiring collection of great choral music sung in the radiant acoustic of Wells Cathedral by the critically acclaimed Wells Cathedral Choir, hailed by Gramophone magazine as ‘probably the finest English cathedral choir at the moment’ in ‘world-class form’.

“Like the proverbial cup, this delightful disc brimmeth over with good cheer…As a musical sequence, this rich and colourful programme works well and will undoubtedly provide support and succour to all those who hear it. Gary Cole’s engineering and production are up to their usual excellent standard, matched by the well-designed and generously filled booklet.”  (Gramophone July 2011)

“There are two good reasons for buying this CD. One is that it contains an attractive, intelligently chosen programme, which is well performed. The second is that the disc is being sold in support of an estimable charitable cause: the St. Margaret’s Hospice in Taunton, Somerset.

Matthew Owens has been doing some excellent work since he arrived at Wells Cathedral in 2005. He inherited a very good choir from his predecessor, Malcolm Archer, and he has built shrewdly on those foundations. Several of the choir’s CDs have been enthusiastically reviewed on MusicWeb International in recent years.

Here, they present an unashamedly popular programme – such as will attract a wide audience, given the fundraising purpose of this disc. But although the contents of the disc are largely well known, I was pleased to note that the opportunity has been taken to introduce one of two less familiar items to a wider audience. John Rutter’s music needs little introduction but his Wells Jubilate is a recent piece and, as such, may not yet be well known. It was written in 2009 to mark the end of restoration work on the cathedral and this is an excellent chance for the choir for which it was written to show it off. It’s a very good piece with suitably extrovert outer sections encasing a more reflective central section.

Again, Howard Goodall’s setting of The Lord is my Shepherd will be instantly recognised by anyone who has seem the BBC television series, The Vicar of Dibley. But how many people have come across the setting of Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ that he made in 2000? Goodall’s new tune is a very good one indeed and I’m delighted to find it included here though I have to say that Matthew Owens seems to me to take it at too slow and stately a speed – an earlier recording, which I reviewed, takes nearly two minutes less for the piece.

Other pieces that are, perhaps, less frequently heard than they deserve are the very different but equally excellent settings of Ave Maria by the Austrian, Franz Biebl and by the English organist and conductor, Simon Lindley. Both make a strong impression here. The staple English cathedral repertoire is represented by Dyson and Stanford. Their music will be standard fare for the Wells singers and they perform it with easy familiarity and gusto.

The choir is well supported by the Wells Cathedral School Chamber Orchestra in spirited performances of excerpts from Messiah and the Vivaldi Gloria. Elsewhere, Jonathan Vaughn, the cathedral’s Assistant Organist offers some excellent accompaniments and he also contributes two highly enjoyable solo items by Cocker and Hollins. The whole enterprise is directed by Matthew Owens with all the skill that one has come to associate with his work with the Wells choir; the choral singing is uniformly excellent throughout the programme.

I hope this highly enjoyable and very well performed disc will sell in large numbers. Purchasers should enjoy it very much and they’ll be helping a very worthwhile charitable cause. A highly enjoyable and very well performed programme.”  (John Quinn, musicweb-international.com)

Choral Music by Jonathan Dove

“For a representative selection of Dove’s choral works, this fits the bill. However, the beautiful singing makes it more than a mere box-ticker for one’s collection. Existing Dove fans will want to own this, too.****” (Classic fm Magazine, Nov ’10)

“Dove’s fresh, diatonic idiom is coupled to a matchless sense of word-setting … He writes most gratefully for the voice, with the intensity of Kenneth Leighton, the bravura of Britten and the timeless ecstasy of Tavener … The Wells choristers tackle everything with aplomb, élan and evident enjoyment” (Gramophone)

“Wells must currently stand as England’s finest cathedral choir, and its legacy of promoting contemporary church music will remain long after every treble voice here has become a baritone, tenor or bass … As it stands today, that top line has unfailing precision of pitch and unaffected beauty of tone, while the men possess the flexibility and collective musicianship to underlay that top line with impeccable textural clarity and satisfying tonal depth … Few will not respond to the sparkling and angelic ‘Wellcome, all wonders in one sight … while ‘Run, shepherds, run!’ … adds a moment of high drama, reminding us vividly of Dove’s operatic credentials … This disc offers some moments of pure magic and many truly uplifting experiences” (International Record Review)

“Matthew Owens has clearly prepared the choir with scrupulous sensitivity, and conducts with an incisive freshness … Dove’s music is splendidly effective and brightly expressive” (BBC Music Magazine)

“Wells is currently enjoying a superb top line, rewardingly displayed in this collection of Jonathan Dove’s radiant choral works, including a first recording of his sparkling Missa Brevis” (The Observer)

David Bednall: Flame Celestial

“Bednall has again entrusted his music to the Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens and they have not only done him and themselves proud, they have reinforced their current position as one of the UK’s leading cathedral choirs; an absolutely magical performance of the Benedictus from the Mass sets the seal on their excellence.” (Marc Rochester, Gramophone, Gramophone Recommendation)

“…I was impressed with my first exposure to David Bednall’s music on disc and this latest CD confirms that excellent impression. It seems to me that he has an instinctive empathy with choirs and, on the evidence I’ve heard to date, his writing for them is assured and effective. A fine organist in his own right, he writes as effectively as one might expect for his own instrument. His music is superbly served by Matthew Owens and his excellent choir while the contributions of Jonathan Vaughn at the Wells organ are thrilling one moment and sensitive the next. This disc is a fine successor to Regent’s previous issues of David Bednall’s music.” (musicweb-international.com)

Mathias Choral Music

“This is one of those recordings that works its way into your spirit and enriches the soul … Glorious, life-affirming and distinctive choral music in superbly polished performances” (Gramophone)

“This valuable anthology of Mathias’s church music … The performance is marked by a palpable understanding of text and sustained concentration … Excellent notes by Roderic Dunnett help enormously to ‘place’ both Mathias and his music” (BBC Music Magazine)

‘”Mathias fanciers who already have the Christ Church Cathedral Choir or Gloriae Dei Cantores CDs can add this newcomer without significant redundancy … Conductor Matthew Owens obtains a creamily blended (but not bland) sound from his 34 singers … It is nice to hear a choral group pay as much attention to meaning and characterization as it does to sound per se. Organist Jonathan Vaughn doesn’t overwhelm the choristers and is given a chance to bask in his own light in the Processional and Carollon” (International Record Review)

Leighton : The World’s Desire

“The more I hear of Wells Cathedral Choir the more impressed I am. Matthew Owens has certainly brought these choristers to the very peak of excellence; it ranks as probably the finest English cathedral choir at the moment … The two large-scale works are delivered with great power and breadth, David Bednall’s organ accompaniments as full of colour and pizzazz as one could want. It all adds up to stunning performances of outstanding music … Leighton’s memory is well served in this superb release” (Gramophone)

“Two things stand out in this new release featuring a selection of Kenneth Leighton’s sacred choral music: the inclusion of three first-time recordings and the glorious, energetic performances of the Wells Cathedral Choir … [The World’s Desire] The return of Heber’s hymn brings both the work and the disc to a close in such a spine-tinglingly awesome fashion that the listener is compelled to hit the ‘play button’ again almost immediately” (International Record Review)

“This CD takes its title from an Epiphany sequence, and includes fine music for organ and a set of morning canticles never before recorded. Wells Cathedral Choir is in cracking form” (Observer)

“The full-throated, passionate performances by the Wells singers for Hyperion are highly persuasive” (Classical Music magazine)

“The quintissential English cathedral ambience evoked by the choir, organ and acoustic of Wells is well captured by Hyperion and perfectly serves the unmistakable muscular language of Kenneth Leighton’s music” (Choir and Organ Magazine)

Christmas from Wells

A beautiful and varied selection of Christmas music, including two first recordings, sung with true Christmas spirit by the superlative Wells Cathedral Choir.” (Crotchet.co.uk)

David Bednall: Hail Gladdening Light

“It is music in a perpetual state of climax… The overall choral sound is wonderfully blended and must rank as one of the top cathedral sounds outside London.” (BBC Music Magazine)

“The singing of Wells Cathedral Choir – its fine eighteen-voice girl choristers on the top line – is immaculate and Matthew Owens, for whom several of the works were written, directs with flair and obvious enthusiasm for Bednall’s music” (The Organ)

Burgon Choral Music

ALBUM OF THE WEEK – THE INDEPENDENT – ‘The national soundtrack for the past three decades…[Burgon] shows what can be done with some simple ideas and a top-flight cathedral choir’ (The Independent)

“The music is gratefully written for voices, expertly performed, and warmly recorded” (BBC Music Magazine)

“Geoffrey Burgon … has found a niche in contemporary English choral music because he wants to communicate, to write music that people want to hear … This immensely appealing music is superbly sung by the Wells Cathedral Choir who prove to have excellent soloists. The vivid direction by Matthew Owens is greatly aided by David Bednall’s creative organ contribution and Hyperion’s first-class recording in the cathedral. A disc well worth seeking out” (Gramophone)

“Hyperion’s championing of British composers goes on unabated. With this first issue dedicated to Geoffrey Burgon’s choral works, the catalogue has been enriched with a truly versatile contemporary voice…closer analysis reveals a wealth of invention and masterly command of the voice deeply rooted in the classical tradition… The Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens give compelling performances and the emotional and textural intensity of their singing does Burgon proud. As expected, sound and balance are of the very highest standards” (Classical.net)

“The girls and men of Wells Cathedral directed by Matthew Owens give a riveting performance enhanced by the playing of David Bednall and Alan Thomas … In the popular field Burgon presses all the right buttons without risk of compromise” (Choir & Organ Magazine)

“Strong performances from the Wells Cathedral girl choristers and lay clerks … I was soon persuaded that this recording is a welcome addition to the Burgon discography” (Cathedral Music

Howells Choral Music

“Although you can find many of the works on this program scattered across other compilations both devoted to Herbert Howells and combined with music by other composers, this disc contains an excellent selection of both service music and anthems that will serve as a fine companion to, say, the Corydon Singers’ (Hyperion) or Vasari Singers’ (Signum) version of the Requiem. Much of Howells’ significant contribution to 20th-century church music has been fairly well documented by some of the world’s best choirs, and the Choir of Wells Cathedral must be included in that category, here delivering a rendition of the substantial A Sequence for St. Michael with emotional power and dynamic force worthy of the work’s awesome subject and Howells’ dramatic score. The tempo is faster than some others–all to the performance’s good–and there’s real force behind the cathedral organ, alongside which the choral voices, complete with exceptionally lovely boy and girl trebles, stand full and well-balanced.” (Classictoday.com

Malcolm Archer: Cathedral Music

“Widely published and often performed, is seems possible that Malcolm Archer has secured himself a place among the line of practising church musicians who will be remembered in centuries to come as one whose compositions have enriched the Anglican choral repertoire. How fitting, therefore, is his recent appointment to the post of Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. His name will stand alongside Morley Batten, Clarke, Greene, Attwood, Goss and Stainer: sometime Organists of St Paul’s whose music has found a lasting place in the repertoire.

Every bar of Malcolm Archer’s music included on this disc is imbued with the Anglican tradition. The programme comprises ‘The desert shall rejoice'; ‘The Wells Service'; ‘Blest are the pure in heart’, ‘The Clifton Service'; ‘Missa Brevis'; ‘The Son of the most high'; ‘0 where can I go from your spirit’., ‘A Hymn to Wisdom'; and ‘0 magnum mysterium’. If Howells is the greatest influence (particularly in The Wells Service), echoes of the styles -or at least the compositional spirits -of other English musicians are to be heard, including Bainton, Vaughan Williams and Patrick Hadley, to name but a few. ‘The desert shall rejoice’, an Advent anthem drawn from a longer work, might be nicknamed ‘Archer’s Wilderness’. The beguiling cor anglais part and melting choral lines are deliciously sweet: sweet, but not sickly. Archer’s musical sweetness is the complex sweetness of honey; not a cloying, synthetic sweetness found in some contemporary choral music. It is not only English composers whose influence is to be heard in Archer’s music. Poulenc, Martin and Duruflé make will-o’-the-wisp -like appearances: a brief shimmering, then gone. ‘A hymn to wisdom’ is a good example of how Malcolm Archer melds the influences of many composers into his own to create a work of over six minutes’ duration that is stylistically convincing and architecturally successful.

With regards to the performances on this disc, suffice it to say that they are a testimony to Mr Archer’s fine choir-training skills and the listener should remember that the Wells Cathedral Choir includes both boys and girls.” (Church Music Quarterly, September 2004)

Lead Kindly Light: English Hymn 5

“There’s a time for joining with a congregation of like-minded worshipers to sing (in all its various, albeit sincere, forms) great church hymns, and there’s a time to sit back and enjoy a choir well-versed in the finer aspects of hymn-singing–expressing, phrasing, punctuating, and clearly articulating our favorites to the sound of a great cathedral organ, complete with solos and descants and even offering a few newly conceived settings. In Volume 5 of Hyperion’s survey of “The English Hymn” the Wells Cathedral Choir again shows its stuff–and it’s glorious, as it should be, not only because of the material, which includes many standards, long-loved favorites, and perfectly crafted musical gems along with some less-familiar tunes, but also because of this choir’s sturdy, full-bodied singing, both exuberant and reverent, and its natural, sensible, unaffected phrasing and enunciation. The choir’s use of both boy and girl trebles gives the bright-toned upper lines a nicely centered quality and the resonant cathedral acoustic is faithfully reproduced by Hyperion’s recording team.

Several of the hymn texts appear with what some listeners will consider “alternate” tunes–“Love divine, all loves excelling” sung to Blaenwern instead of Hyfrydol–and vice versa–Slane sung to the words “Lord of all hopefulness” instead of “Be thou my vision”. But we also get the pleasure of all-too-rarely heard treasures such as William Runyon’s Great is thy faithfulness and Henry Walford Davies’ God be in my head. Director Malcolm Archer contributes his own tune–“Lake MacDonald”, named after a lake in Quebec where he was teaching in the summer of 2003–set to a Christopher Wordsworth text, “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost”, and the program concludes with a grand, all-stops-out rendition of Thine be the glory, in its rousing setting to Handel’s famous tune from Judas Maccabaeus. Hymn lovers need no encouragement or any further discussion; these inspiring texts and timeless tunes speak for themselves.” (ClassicsToday.com)

Hills of the north, rejoice: English Hymn 3

“This is the third collection in Hyperion’s laudable English Hymn series and while it is very welcome, one cannot but feel that this is slightly over milking the good cow! There are 23 short pieces in the collection which include some singular contributions to be sung in various times in the Church calendar.

One would be pretty hard pressed to choose a favourite amongst such munificence, yet I am always very fond of the lovely carol, “O little town of Bethlehem” and that would take my vote this time round! The tunes are all of quite a glorious nature through and through whilst the concluding fanfares in the Pentecost hymnal definitely show the greatness and purity of this lovely season that is quite drenched with optimism.

You wouldn’t be too enthusiastic after listening to all the hymns in one go, perhaps but taken in doses of three or four, the compilation is quite truly irresistible. The Wells Cathedral acoustic is quite excellently pruned for the job whilst Gough and Archer have the music in their blood. The stupendous photography on the front cover is also a delightful addendum to buy! Collectors of the series will obviously want to purchase immediately. Newcomers to the wonderful field of such fresh beauty would also be advised to find the cash without delay!” (Classical.Net)

Jerusalem the Golden: English Hymn 2

“Delivered with crisp, evocative conviction.” (Classic FM Magazine)

Christ Triumphant: English Hymn 6

A happy selection of hymns from Wells Cathedral in which sentimentality is given a wide berth.

Many, or perhaps most, readers of Gramophone would be surprised to find themselves buying a record of hymns, and I can't claim to have been overjoyed on finding that this one had been sent to lire for review. The time spent listening to it, however, has been delightful: sceptical readers are strongly recommended to surprise themselves. (Gramophone)

Favourite Organ Music from Wells

 

 

All things bright and beautiful: English Hymn 4

“Although subtitled “Hymns for Children”, this Volume 4 in Hyperion’s English Hymn series includes some of the genre’s most enduring, universally revered, all-age constituents–the kind that you may first hear and sing as a child but carry with you the rest of your life. Those who know this repertoire will be pleased to find such standards as All things bright and beautiful (W.H. Monk’s tune) and There is a green hill far away (Horsley)–two of the classics with words by Mrs. (Cecil Frances) Alexander, who in the 19th century wrote many hymns ostensibly as a means of teaching her godchildren the Creed. (Once in royal David’s city, not included here, is another of her more famous “instructional” efforts.) Other of the more sophisticated, adult-favorite selections are the great processional All glory, laud, and honor (St. Theodulph), Percy Dearmer’s He who would valiant be (set to Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the tune Monk’s Gate), and Dear Lord and Father of mankind (words by Whittier), set to Hubert Parry’s very beautiful and moving tune Repton.

Among the more specifically child-oriented hymns are William Parker’s Tell me the stories of Jesus, There’s a Friend for little children (to John Stainer’s tune In Memoriam), Away in a Manger (the William Kirkpatrick melody), Little Jesus, sweetly sleep (Rocking), Morning has broken, and What a friend we have in Jesus, a perennial favorite of traditional and fundamentalist Protestant congregations in the U.S.–as is Onward Christian soldiers, sung here with a decidedly tamer militant tone than is often heard in renditions by choirs on this side of the Atlantic.

The informative, often humorous notes prove a significant asset to this collection. Not only do they succinctly describe each hymn’s provenance, with a few tidbits about the authors and composers, but they also aren’t afraid to cite weaknesses, either in the poetry or theology of several entries. There are few weaknesses in the singing, however: this is a choir, as with any English cathedral choir, that knows, lives, and breathes this music, and only occasionally does a particular section (basses and tenors, mostly) get a little overzealous in its delivery. Because of the bigness of the space, some hymns–the ones requiring a lighter feel and faster tempo, such as Lord of the dance–come off a bit cumbersome, the choir and organ’s effort at clean articulation somewhat swallowed in the acoustic. But this is the sound of cathedral hymn-singing–and thankfully without the inevitable, often overwhelming tempo-smudging, pitch-fudging presence of congregation and clergy! If you love English hymns, this will be another essential addition to the library–and you likely will discover a few new tunes and texts, as I did, to remind you of the infinite variety and profound capacity for inspiration embodied in this very special music.” (arkivmusic.com)