With church choirs effectively silenced this year due to Covid, the release of a new album by Paisley Abbey Choir is definitely something to celebrate. The music is fresh and inspiring – Scottish composers old and new – which the performances abundantly reflect, albeit from a smaller Abbey Choir than was once the norm.
A Celtic Prayer, conceived under the directorship of George McPhee – now heading towards his 58th year as Abbey organist – was recorded last January. McPhee’s own compositions feature prominently, including three organ works that provide occasional respite from a substantial package of sacred choral music.
The earliest written are two settings by the Renaissance Scottish composer Robert Johnson (c1470 – 1554), a noted precursor of the great Robert Carver. The smooth-grained a cappella polyphony of Gaude Maria Virgo – intimately sung by a small sub-group of the main choir – contrasts with the fuller, more hymn-like declamations of Benedicam Domino.
Then there’s a leap to the 20th/21st centuries and a spread of repertoire representative of a wide range of Scottish compositional voices. There is no Rose reveals a gorgeously ruminative side to the late Thomas Wilson, the magical diminuendo on “Gloria in excess deo” utterly breathtaking. Cedric Thorpe Davie’s two anthems, The Lord is He and Come Holy Ghost the Maker complement each other, the first gritty and institutionally rousing, the second a true gem in its sublime expressiveness and arching power, both meatily accompanied by organist David Gerrard.
Mater salutaris is one of the late Martin Dalby’s most inspirational works, intrinsically pure and simple, deliciously coloured by soft-spun complexities of texture, the power of its understatement neatly captured in this performance.
Indeed, how often do we find composers like Dalby and Wilson, whose instrumental works frequently explore more dissonant channels of communication, reset to calmer harmonic solutions in their choral music? There’s combined evidence of that in Stuart MacRae’s beautifully original setting of Adam lay ybounden, its powerful juxtaposition of golden a cappella verses against the freer, wilder organ responses giving potent new meaning to these 15th century words.
Not everything is as wholly inspired. Owen Swindale’s Trinity Sunday is charming in its simplicity, but a little too like composition by numbers. A resulting matter-of-factness informs the performance.
Little danger of that in James MacmIllan’s Chosen – written in 2003 for McPhee’s 40th anniversary as Paisley organist – initially dour in character, its weeping ornamentation challenging the tuning of the uppermost voices, but rising to tumultuous heights. More unusual, refreshingly so, is Eddie McGuire’s Three Donne Lyrics, settings of words by John Donne for choir and bass flute (Ewan Robertson) that combine primitive wistfulness and solemnity with dreamy snatches of free-flowing post-Impressionism.
The title track, A Celtic Prayer, is by McPhee himself, one of two choral pieces written with his Paisley Abbey Choir in mind. It boasts allegiance to Leighton and Howells, its mellifluous sung line, modal at heart, bolstered by the restive fluidity of the organ writing. The liturgical Benedictus es Domine provides a lusty contrast.
McPhee performs his own organ music: two endearing “Preludes” on well-known Christmas hymns, Bunessan (“Child in a Manger”) and Quem Pastores, before signing off with his fruity Trumpet March on “Highland Cathedral”. Who would dare deny the veteran Paisley Abbey organist such a joyous indulgence?
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