I wish that I had heard the opening Three Marian Carols during the Christmas season, for they are amongst the most beautiful examples of the carol writers art that I have come across in a long time. These evocative numbers have been collected from a number of the composer’s previously published works and are grouped together for this recording: they cover a span of 48 years of musical composition. The earliest, ‘Mary laid her child’ dates from 1964 and is a setting of a poem by the 20th century ‘Lakeland’ poet Norman Nicholson. This is a poetic mediation based on the idea that Jesus was born near a ‘miry frozen farm.’ The location of the the nativity has been moved from Bethlehem to Bassenthwaite, maybe. The music reflects the cold, the frost, and a glimmer of warmth from a fire in the barn. The poem concludes with an intimation of the crucifixion. ‘Dormi Jesus’ was written nearly a decade later and is based on an anonymous 15th century text. This is a heart achingly beautiful carol that balances bitter-sweet harmonies with a lovely soprano solo. The most recent is ‘I sing of a maiden’ (2008) which is based on another anonymous text. This well-balanced carol utilises a semi-chorus alongside the main chorus. All three numbers work well as a group. The composer has written in the liner notes that ‘writing carols has been a constant pleasure throughout [his] career, as relaxation from sterner stuff…as a way of participating in the great tradition of music for the community.’
I found the Mangan Triptych difficult to come to terms with. It is not that the music is ‘difficult’ or unapproachable: it is just that the work as presented here is too long –at least for me. However, this is not a huge problem as each of the three ‘panels’ were composed for a different occasion and appear to have been performed separately. Taking them one at a time would be my recommendation for a listening strategy. James Clarence Mangan was born in Dublin in 1803. After an education at a Jesuit school, he worked as a lawyer’s clerk, then for the Ordnance Survey and latterly as an assistant in Trinity College Library. His early poetry was apparently ‘a-political’ but subsequent to the Great Famine, he began to explore Irish nationalistic themes. He had a tragic life, being afflicted with illness, depression and irrational fears. He was an eccentric – appearing on Dublin streets wearing a long cloak, green spectacles and a blonde wig. In 1849, he died from of cholera – however his health had been compromised by malnutrition, poverty, opium and alcohol. However, W.B. Yeats considered Mangan to be one of the best Irish poets.
John McCabe states in the liner notes that he was ‘immediately impressed…with the characteristically Irish rhetorical power and vivid imagery’ [of the poetry]. He considers that it has ‘a powerful visionary quality.’
Three things need to be said. The text is full of allusions, metaphors and symbols. The meaning does not jump out to the listener. I was reminded of the English poet Christopher Smart in the complexity and convolutedness of the imagery. Secondly, John McCabe has brought some impressive music to these settings. It is characterised by almost continual invention. The musical content has McCabe’s usual characteristic of a wide-ranging harmonic language ranging from the acerbic to the meltingly beautiful. There are times when the the poet’s mental turmoil is reflected in the music, although there is much that is reflective and heart-easing. Finally, this work could (should?) be regarded as a ‘choral symphony’ for eight-part choir. As such the composer has stated that he prefers the ‘movements’ given in the order presented on this disc. It is a work that will challenge the listener.
‘Amen/Alleluia’ was written in 1981 for the William Ferris Chorale in Chicago for their twentieth anniversary concert. Apart from the title, there are no words in this composition: it is effectively a ‘deconstruction’ of the the syllables. The ‘amen’ part of the work is slow whilst the ‘alleluia’ begins quietly and builds up to a scorching climax. It could be argued that the repetition of two words over a 5-minute span is either a bit experimental or somewhat Handelian. However, as an exercise in sound it makes an interesting point, even if the text is not too imaginative.
I enjoyed the descriptive setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Proud Songsters’. It does indeed capture ‘the vigour of young birds singing and the evanescent nature of their existence’. ‘The Lily-White Rose’ is extracted from a larger work, Songs of the Garden (2004/2009) for soloists, chorus and full orchestra (or ensemble). The present motet is a moving arrangement for SATB.
I imagine that the ‘Morning’ and the ‘Evening Watch’ will be often be performed ‘back to back’ in spite of some 36 years separating their composition. Both texts are derived from the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) who was a ‘metaphysical’ poet. There is an interesting stylistic contrast between the two texts and their setting. The organ is used to considerable effect in the latter.
‘Great Lord of Lords’ is a good piece to follow the introverted dialogue between the body and soul of the ‘Evening Watch’. This is a big powerful setting of a song of praise that creates an impressive balance between choir and organ.
‘A Hymne to God the Father’ (1966) is a reserved setting of a poem by John Donne. The harmony is often bitter-sweet with only occasional relaxation. McCabe uses three soloists to add intimacy to the music.
The final setting, ‘The Last and Greatest Herald’, opens with an impressive organ flourish. The text is by the Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) and examines the contribution to the Christian story made by St. John the Baptist during his sojourn in the desert. The choral writing is typically massive and vibrant, with contrasting sections of reflective music. The work ends with a huge climax urging the listener to ‘Repent! Repent!’ Throughout this work, the organ is busy providing an intricate accompaniment that is almost ‘jazzy’ in places. A great finish to this CD
This is a handsomely presented CD. The singing by the BBC signers under David Hill is perfect. Every nuance of McCabe’s music is clear and well-defined: the words are always audible. Most of the music on this disc is a-cappella; however the remainder has an organ accompaniment – so I must not forget the excellent playing by Iain Farrington, who is also a composer, as well as an organist and pianist.
The liner notes are by John McCabe – so no potential for argument there. The texts of all the works are included along with a translation of ‘Dormi Jesu’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
This CD can be recommended to anyone who appreciates modern but accessible choral music. For those listeners who only known this composer through his large- scale works such as the ballets, the Chagall Windows or Cloudcatcher Fell for brass band, this disc will be an eye opening exploration into a facet of McCabe’s music that is little represented in the CD catalogues.
Three Marian Carols (2008/1973/1964) Mangan Triptych (1983/1980/1979) Amen / Alleluia (1991) Proud Songsters (1989) The Lily-White Rose (2009) The Morning Watch (1968) The Evening Watch (2003) Great Lord of Lords (1967) A Hymne to God the Father (1966) The Last and Greatest Herald (2008)
Iain Farrington (organ) BBC Singers / David Hill
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.