ROAD TO PARADISE Gabrieli Cons. McCreesh

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THE ROAD TO PARADISE

Werke von / Works by
Benjamin Britten · William Byrd
William H. Harris · Gustav Holst
Herbert Howells · Robert Parsons
Richard Rodney Bennett
John Sheppard · Thomas Tallis
John Tavener
Gabrieli Consort
Paul McCreesh
Int. Release 01 Jun. 2007
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CD DDD 0289 477 6605 6 GH
Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort take listeners on a spiritual journey


Track List

Thomas Tallis
Traditional
Robert Parsons (1535 - 1572)
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
William Byrd (1540 - 1623)
John Sheppard
Richard Rodney Bennett (1936 - )
John Tavener (1944 - )
John Sheppard
Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934)
William Henry Harris (1883 - 1973)
Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983)
Take him, earth for cherishing (1963) (motet on the death of President Kennedy)

Gregorian Chant
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh

Total Playing Time 1:13:29

Paul McCreesh had organised the repertoire as a kind of Pilgrim¿s Progress -- not in the sense that the pieces were associated with the great medieval pilgrim routes, but rather as a way of tracing a soul¿s journey from life to death. Of course there were some compromises, such as placing Howells¿s "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing" in the concert¿s final section, called "A Vision of Paradise". Written for President Kennedy¿s memorial service, this grief-wracked motet is anything but settled, peaceful and paradisical. But presenting that demanding piece straight after Holst¿s equally challenging "Nunc Dimittis and William" Harris¿s unexpectedly grand "Bring Us, O Lord God" at least gave the 22 unaccompanied voices of the Gabrieli Consort an opportunity to unleash their full vocal power, which was thrilling. I swear I saw Hawksmoor¿s mighty pillars tremble . . . Pride of place here went to the Götterdämmerung of the Tudor world: John Sheppard¿s "Media vita". A full 20 minutes of sonorous mid-16th century counterpoint, spiced with the most exquisitely plangent dissonances, it was brilliantly sustained. As was Tallis¿s Miserere -- not just a virtuoso feat of contrapuntal daring, but one of the 16th century¿s most sublime masterpieces . . . this was a concert that did full justice to some of England¿s finest choral music.

The Gabrieli Consort leaps into the chart with its first-ever 'concept' album.

It's a beautifully realised sequence, framed by plainchant and a tolling bell, which begins with Tallis's tiny motet Miserere Nostri Domine, and ends with Herbert Howells' Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing. The most substantial work is John Sheppard's elaborate six-voice Media Vita in Morte Sumus, wonderfully sung by the mixed voices of the Gabrieli Consort. Every performance is beautifully conceived and recorded in an acoustic that gives enough churchy resonance without obscuring the detail.

Exquisitely sung, they amount to a solemn, very English response to life's transience and the permanence of death.

McCreesh turns an artistic thread binding the two golden ages of English choral music -- Tudor and 20th-century -- into a pilgrimage of the soul, from life to death to immortality in paradise . . . Robert Parsons¿s Ave Maria, William Byrd¿s Christe, qui lux es and especially John Sheppard¿s enormous, almost 20-minute Media Vita make ample amends, as do the 16-year-old Britten¿s prodigious A Hymn to the Virgin and Holst¿s beautiful Nunc Dimittis. There are riches here, superbly sung by the Gabrielis . . .

. . . the Gabrieli Consort actually come up with some exceptional performances here. There are genuinely moving and enlightening accounts of Robert Parsons's "Ave Maria" and of Britten's "A Hymn to the Virgin", quite simply as good as anything available elsewhere, a beautifully posed account of "A Good-Night" which perfectly captures the simple, direct character of Richard Rodney Bennett's setting, and a graceful, elegant, unforgettable performances of John Sheppard's "In pace in idipsum" which exudes tranquillity. There is no doubt that Paul McCreesh has been inspired to draw from his singers performances of unusual sumptuousness in their own right . . .

. . . it is his personal passion for the specific choices that drives the enthusiasm behind the performances . . . Elsewhere the performances do not match the stimulating variety of the selection. The artfully resonant recording rings the singers with a translucent halo without quite dispelling the sense of virtuoso voices in concert. You could travel a long way to find a more carefully shaped account of the Parsons "Ave Maria", but not so far for one that treats each phrase on its own merits, for a sense of its fragility and increasing confidence. As McCreesh emphasise in the booklet, we are a long, long way from Choral Evensong.

Beautiful singing . . . The disc is most memorable for the inclusion of John Sheppard¿s Media Vita, Tudor polyphony¿s longest work. There is no sluggishness here, only the glorious interplay of voices.

As always, the Gabrieli Consort's singing is of the highest quality and the recording is impeccable.

It begins with Tallis's "Miserere Nostri" and within seconds you wonder if this was wise: after such a gorgeous performance of this sublime music, surely everything else will be an anti-climax. Well, no. The plainsong "Jacet Granum/Prosa Clangat Pastor", reaching back several centuries further, emulates it for grace, depth of feeling and sense of wonder. This is the rich soil from which everything else here sprang.

In this beautiful, reflective and richly performed CD the Gabrieli Consort celebrates the medieval concept of life in death and death in life.

McCreesh's exquisite programme follows the soul's journey from life through death into Paradise, finding resonances of ancient plainchant in later choral settings . . . the quality of singing is mesmerising.

Mit seinem Edelchor begibt er sich auf eine musikalische Pilgerreise durch die englische Chorliteratur . . . Als Hörer kann man diese sängerisch wunderbar umgesetzte Straße in Richtung Eden . . . genießen.

Der stählern-brillante, fast vibratofreie Klang des Gabrieli Consort, dessen . . . freie Stimmen nahezu perfekt verschmelzen, ist . . . beeindruckend. Und mit welch großem dynamischen Spektrum werden die meisten Stücke vorgetragen!

Wahrhaft paradiesische Klänge hat Paul McCreesh auf diese CD versammelt . . . Mit einer sehr gelungenen Werkauswahl versinnbildlicht er einen Weg von der "Stunde des Todes" bis zur Entrückung ins Paradies mit Gregorianischem Choral . . . Musiziert ist das ganze jedenfalls auf hohem Niveau . . .

. . .[une] belle et intelligente anthologie . . . cet éventail cohérent et éclectique est en fait un vrai panorama spirituel. En revenant à la direction chorale, McCreesh semble opérer un retour aux sources, une sorte de pèlerinage qui lui réussit fort bien, ainsi qu'à nous.

. . . les chanteurs ont toutes ces musiques dans la voix, certains depuis leur plus jeunes âge . . . il y a une réelle fascination à se perdre dans ce monde . . . Paul McCreesh lui donne un tour personnel très émouvant.


    McCreesh's Musical Pilgrimage


It has every indication of becoming one of the most attractive and deeply enjoyable releases of the year: Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort have recorded an inspiring journey through the English a cappella landscape. Illustrating the search for enlightenment that informed medieval pilgrimages, their bold programme of choral masterpieces of the 16th and 20th centuries forges musical and spiritual bonds across five centuries of history. Works by composers including William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst are grouped to follow the soul's journey from life to death and a vision of paradise beyond. The magnificent edifice of Tallis's Miserere nostri is matched by the grand scale of John Sheppard's Media vita in morte sumus, described by one critic as “the Götterdämmerung of the Tudor era". From our own time, we hear Herbert Howells's moving Take him, Earth, for cherishing, written in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and John Tavener's ethereal Song for Athene, which touched the hearts of listeners all over the world when it was heard at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. As Paul McCreesh says: “The sense of life's transience is fundamental to musical expression, to the vast majority of all art, and indeed to existence itself."

4/2007

The Road to Paradise

In 2005 the Gabrieli Consort were asked to give a series of concerts in northern Spain along the famous Christian pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. If the vast cathedrals of Leon, Burgos and Santiago are the most imposing remnants from the medieval world of pilgrimage, equally affecting are the dozens of tiny votive chapels on this route, the worn stones of parts of the ancient way, and the great swathes of open country that have changed so little in the intervening centuries.
For the medieval pilgrim, the physical exertions required to reach a holy destination became a representation of the spiritual journey of the soul. “Media vita in morte sumus" (In the midst of life we are in death) was indeed a defining concept of medieval Christianity in a world where famine, disease and pestilence were a constant danger. The “grim reaper" was forever harvesting, the possibility of death was ever present, and one's soul had always to be prepared. And yet, while a certain fear of death is almost a human prerequisite, for the believer, the moment of death is the beginning of a new life of visionary joy. All the music in this recording is drawn from the English tradition which, defying limitations of historical period or musical style, explores this central paradox: we lament the passing of our time on earth, we fear the unknowable but at the same time dream of an afterlife of ravishing beauty, transcendent peace and boundless joy.

In ora mortis nostrae
A single bell tolls as another life comes to an end and the mercy of god is sought for the soul of the deceased. Thomas Tallis's Miserere nostri domine is a short seven-voice motet, probably written merely to illustrate a brilliant compositional conceit: three pairs of canons moving at different speeds, with only one “free" part. In spite of this technical genius, the music bespeaks calmness and serenity.

The pilgrim's journey
Our musical pilgrimage begins with a 13th-century processional sequence, Jacet granum, which was traditionally sung at the altar of St. Thomas à Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. Thomas was canonized in 1173, and Canterbury quickly became one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Europe. Jacet granum honours Thomas in movingly poetic language: “Now the grain lies crushed amid the chaff / The just man is felled by the sword of the wicked."
All along the pilgrim route are many chapels, some devoted to local saints, but many also to the Virgin Mary. Two motets honour the Mother of God. Robert Parsons's beautiful setting of Ave Maria has long been a personal favourite, especially towards the end where its soaring, imitative entries somehow take us into another world. Of Parsons's life we know almost nothing, but he died young, drowning in the River Trent. His contemporary, the copyist Robert Dow (whose partbooks are an important source of information about music in this period), wrote a touching eulogy that catches the sense of loss that permeates much of the music on this recording: “Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life / How great would you have been in the autumn, had not death taken you away." Benjamin Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin sets a medieval English and Latin text with masterful simplicity and touchingly direct expression - and this from a 16-year-old composer. Fittingly, it was sung at Britten's own funeral.


Media vita in morte sumus
William Byrd's setting of the compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies is at first hearing remarkable for its “other-worldly" quality, but such beauty hides a particular technical challenge, which is resolved with apparent ease: after the opening plainchant verse, the chant is present throughout the five-part writing, moving from the bass upwards through the voices verse by verse, and ending in the top voice. Byrd's own words are worthy of quotation: “There is such a profound and hidden power in sacred words, as I have learned by trial, that to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, the most suitable of all musical measures occur (I know not how) as of themselves and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert."
When the Gabrieli Consort performed John Sheppard's Media vita in morte sumus in London, Richard Morrison of The Times described it as “the Götterdämmerung of the Tudor era", which gives some sense of its scale and drama. It is a work of truly symphonic proportions (almost 20 minutes in length) for a typically English choir of six voices: high trebles, means (a lower boys' voice), two tenors, baritone and bass. Huge slabs of virile six-voice polyphony contrast with two tender and intimate sections for four lower voices, and then, magically, a glorious section for five voices - divided trebles, divided means and a single bass. The liturgical form is that of a compline antiphon for Lent according to the Sarum Use, the ceremonial rite of pre-Reformation English Catholicism. Why Sheppard should have set this particular text so elaborately is not known - indeed we know very little about this composer. Is it fanciful to suggest a real personal empathy with the text, or the fulfilling of a spiritual or musical need?

Requiem aeternam
Death has long been regarded as a moment of release from the tribulations of earthly life, and the image of the final slumber pervades much music of mourning and consolation. Richard Rodney Bennett's A Good-Night, is a setting of the renaissance poet Francis Quarles, and its opening lines, “Close now thine eyes and rest secure / Thy soul is safe enough, thy body sure", embody a central theme of this section of the recording. Bennett's tender and charming setting was written to celebrate the life of Linda McCartney, who died in 1998.
Although John Tavener's Song for Athene became very well known after its inclusion in the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, it was written in 1993 to commemorate the death of a young friend. Much of Tavener's music has drawn its inspiration from the traditions of the Greek Orthodox church, and Song for Athene quotes from both Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral service. John Tavener himself was kind enough to advise me on a couple of interpretative issues, and suggested that we should add full organ ad libitum at the climax. There is a peaceful timelessness about Tavener's “song" that is akin to the serene simplicity of Sheppard's compline antiphon In pace in idipsum, written some four centuries earlier.

A vision of paradise
No doubt every one of us has a different vision of paradise. For my part - should I ever be deemed worthy enough to conduct the celestial choirs - even with all my “early music" credentials I would have to include at least some of the great English cathedral repertoire of the 20th century. Perhaps because I was brought up outside this tradition, I would forcefully argue that the best of this repertoire deserves to be regarded not just as fodder for a parish evensong, but amongst the greatest choral music of the century.
Holst's Nunc dimittis was sung in Westminster Cathedral at Easter 1915 and recalls much music of the past, with its old-style counterpoint and quasi-Venetian dialogue of upper and lower voices. Especially memorable are the evocative hush of the opening bars, as life comes to an end, and a tremendous, thrilling apotheosis as the soul soars ever heavenward. A similar ecstasy permeates William H. Harris's much-loved setting of John Donne, Bring us, O Lord God. The visionary essence of the poetry is masterfully captured, with gentle dialogue between the two choirs, before a great climax melts into a ravishing D flat major cadence - for Harris the key of heavenly serenity.
Herbert Howells wrote Take him, Earth, for cherishing for the memorial service of the assassinated President Kennedy in 1963, yet, like much of Howells's music, it is also a deeply felt response to the loss of his nine-year-old son Michael in 1935. This tragedy inevitably coloured the rest of the composer's life, and much of his music is pervaded by themes of absence and longing. This extraordinarily expressive setting of a fourth-century text by Prudentius is, for me, one of the very greatest pieces of 20th-century choral music.
The sense of life's transience is fundamental to most artistic and musical expression, and indeed to existence itself. For some, religion is an absurd suspension of reality; for others it is an affirmation of deepest certainty. In the end, here, it matters not whether one believes: this music speaks to us across the centuries, celebrating the joy of life, the beauty of the world, the love of dear ones, the fragility of our existence, and our deep-rooted human desire to understand the ultimately unknowable.
Paul McCreesh

4/2007