Friday 16 September 2016

The St. Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir proves to be an impressive choir who along with the Lay Clerks of St. Albans Cathedral Choir deliver some very fine performances of William Mathias’ choral music on a new release from Naxos

The Welsh composer, William Mathias (1934-1992) was born in Whitland, Carmarthenshire, Wales. A child prodigy, he started playing the piano at the age of three and began composing at the age of five. He studied at Aberystwyth University, before going on to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied under Lennox Berkeley. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1965 and later became professor of music and head of department at the University of Wales, Bangor.

A recipient of the Bax Society Prize of the Harriet Cohen International Music Award, his compositions include an opera, The Servants (1980), three symphonies, concertos, chamber music and works for piano and organ. Much of his music was written for the Anglican choral tradition. His anthem Let the people praise Thee, O God was written for the royal wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales. He founded the North Wales International Music Festival in St Asaph in 1972 and directed it until his death in 1992.

A new release from Naxos  features St. Albans Abbey Girls Choir , the Lay Clerks of St. Albans Cathedral Choir  and Orchestra Nova  conducted by Tom Winpenny with Peter Foggitt (piano primo) and Michael Papadopoulos (organ and piano secondo).


Lift up your heads, O ye gates, Op. 44, No. 2 (1969) was commissioned by Oxford University Press for their publication, Anthems for Choirs edited by organist and composer, Francis Jackson of York Minster. It has a brilliant opening from the organ to which the choir add an equally vibrant choral sound together with some typically Mathias turns of phrase, finding a real snap. There is a more subdued central section with some nicely controlled singing from this choir.

Ave Rex, Op. 45 (1969) includes carols that have achieved great popularity, with Sir Christèmas often featured in the Kings College, Cambridge, Christmas Eve service. Ave Rex angelorum opens with a lovely organ phrase to which the choir add some very fine choral sounds to which the organ responds. Mathias finds something new to say in his harmonies and intervals, bringing an uplifting beauty and expanding through some quite wonderful passages. There is a lovely directness to Alleluya, a new work is come on hand before this composer provides some intricate choral writing. There is no rose of such virtue is a setting that is simply very beautiful. It works its way through some exquisite part writing with the Girls’ Choir adding some particularly fine moments and the organ superbly captured before finding a lovely close. The organ introduces Sir Christèmas, the choir bringing lively, particularly accurate singing with some razor sharp phrasing.
The choir sound out joyfully in the Wassail Carol, Op. 26, No. 1 (1964) that was commissioned by Kings College, Cambridge for their famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This carol brings some lovely accents, uplifting and wonderfully sung.

St. Pauls Cathedral organist, John Scott commissioned the anthem, As Truly as God is our Father (1987) on behalf of the Friends of St. Pauls Cathedral. It was first sung in the presence of the Friends Patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. There is a gentle opening from organist Michael Papadopoulos with some lovely subtle harmonies. When the choir join they add equally fine harmonies, the Lay Clerks blending with the Girls’ Choir quite wonderfully. They keep a fine pace, adding subtle increases in tempo and dynamics as the piece progresses, rising through some lovely passages before the organ returns the music to a quieter level and the choir gently sing ‘All shall be well…’ A quite gorgeous setting.

It was Jesus College Cambridge that commissioned Mathias’ setting of the Evening Canticles - Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, Op. 53 ‘Jesus College Service’ (1971). There is a strikingly fine opening for organ to the Magnificat before the Girls’ Choir enter, bringing a lovely brilliance. Soon there is a more subdued section, very much reflecting the awe of the words ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden…’ before rising through passages of further joy and brilliance  with a passage of terrific breadth captured by this choir. The gentle Nunc Dimittis has some lovely harmonies with some beautifully controlled passages from this choir to which the organ joins for ‘Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.’ This is a particularly fine Nunc Dimittis.

Tom Winpenny goes to the organ loft for a lively, vibrant Toccata Giocosa, Op. 36, No. 2 (1967). Written for Sir David Willcocks it is full of fine harmonies, textures and rhythmic ideas, a most attractive piece with a lovely quieter central section.

All thy works shall praise thee, Op. 17b (1961) was Mathias’ very first piece of church music and receives its World Premiere Recording here. A grand opening from the organ announces the anthem to which the choir bring some very fine descending phrases with lovely overlaid choral lines as well as some firm, strong passages.

The other World Premiere Recording on this disc is Mathias’ setting of The Lord's Prayer (1992) which he wrote for the male choir of Whitland only a few months before his death. There is a lovely hushed organ opening to which the choir soon bring an equally lovely gentle theme, with the organ adding some lovely touches. There is a lovely gentle undulating flow in this very fine setting that rises magnificently for ‘Thine is the Kingdom’ before ending quietly.

The larger scale anthem, An Admonition to Rulers, Op. 43 (1969) was written for the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival and first performed in Salisbury Cathedral along with the choirs of Chichester and Winchester Cathedrals. The organ sounds out in almost a fanfare before the choir join to add to the brilliance and power. Here the choir and organist deliver terrific strength. The way Mathias sets the words and adds little organ decorations, is quite masterly. A very fine soloist from the St. Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir is heard singing over an organ accompaniment and later a solo tenor joins bringing a fine tone, beautifully shaped. The choir re-join to bring a very fine section as they weave an undulating theme before rising in strength to a stirring peak before gently declining at the words ‘…for she is more beautiful than the sun...’

Orchestra Nova joins for Salvator Mundi, Op. 89 (1982) for strings, piano duet, percussion and choir written to celebrate the centenary of Cheltenham Ladies College and first performed there. A tambourine points up a rhythmically buoyant Make we merry sung by the St. Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir.  A piano is heard as the music quietens almost to a halt only to slowly plod forward in Mirabile mysterium with string accompaniment to which the Girls’ Choir slowly and steadily brings the text in this really striking section. Be we merry in this feast is also lively and buoyant with subtle influences of Benjamin Britten.  The choir are particularly skilled in this fast moving music.

Pianos and hushed strings open Lullay to which a solo girl’s voice joins. Another soloist joins before the choir slowly takes this beautifully conceived music forward with some beautifully harmonies. There is a nicely contrasting Susanni full of light textured, rhythmic phrases with piano and pizzicato strings adding lovely textures before Christe, redemptor omnium where bell chimes are heard quietly before the choir enters, the girls bringing a lovely overlay of voices. The joyfully rhythmic Welcome, Yule almost has the feel of a Copland Hoedown as it is pushed along by the pianos and orchestra, the choir rising to rush to the vibrant end.

The St. Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir proves to be an impressive choir who along with the Lay Clerks of St. Albans Cathedral Choir deliver some very fine performances. 

The recording from St. Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, England is first class and there are excellent booklet notes from Geraint Lewis. 

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