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Choral Music Media Review Print

Pater Noster: Settings of the Lord's Prayer

August 19, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:

Choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury, Benjamin Nicholas, director, with Carleton Etherington, organ. Priory ( http://www.priory.org.uk/ ) PRCD 787, 2003 (63:26) $16.95.

This is a "survey" CD; it could also be subtitled "The Lord's Prayer through the ages" or "across the centuries." An inherent danger of this type of CD is the appearance of sameness resulting from the repetition of the same text in every track, but that has been largely avoided here because its organizational structure is not chronological. The monotony of the relative sameness to each other of contemporary settings has thus been sidestepped, too, while at the same time the echoes, inspirations, and similarities of the more recent, modern ones with the earlier versions have been highlighted in a kind of comparison-and-contrast progression. There is a certain sense of "the more things change, the more they remain the same" that comes out of the satisfying and also obvious variety that unfolds from this non-chronological arrangement.

The CD includes 21 different settings, opening with the original Plainsong melody, offering an anonymous medieval Mozarabic setting from the Iberian peninsula midway through, and concluding with Henryck Gorecki's "Amen" in the 22nd track - not a setting of the Biblical text, but simply offered as a fitting ending. The composers included (in rough chronological order, not that of the CD) are: Josquin Desprez, John Taverner(?), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Jacob Handl, Robert Stone, John Sheppard, John Farmer, Otto Nicolai, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Charles Villiers Stanford, Igor Stravinsky, Frank Martin, Maurice Duruflé, Kenneth Leighton, Bernard Rose, John Stone, John Tavener, North Carolina's own Dan Locklair, John Caldwell, and Gabriel Jackson. Some of these composers are well known, while others are obscure; and some offer surprises: who knew that Nicolai (known mostly for his opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor ) and Stravinsky also wrote sacred music?

The text is sung in Latin, English, or French, according to that set by the composer in most cases, but the language of the title does not always indicate the language of the sung text, and two that were settings of Church Slavonic are sung in Latin and in English translation. Curiously, the setting by French Swiss composer Martin, excerpted from an oratorio in Latin, is sung in English translation; the logic behind this particular transposition escapes this writer. The Farmer uses an Elizabethan metrical rhymed version of the text, not supplied. The performances are lovely, the diction, precise, and the words, crystal clear. The volume levels are nicely controlled, and the sound quality is excellent, without any of the annoying echoing or reverberation that one might fear in a medieval abbey setting.

The booklet note - "The Musical Tradition of the Lord's Prayer," by Professor John Caldwell (is he one and the same as the above-listed contemporary composer?) - is quite succinct and informative if somewhat generalized. The text is provided in English, Latin, and French, all minus the "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory" phrase that American Protestants are accustomed to, and which is included in only one of the settings (curiously, in the Renaissance version by Sheppard). What is missing, however, are the life dates of the composers, and, where known, the composition dates of the settings, the inclusion of which would have made the booklet a more precise document. This information is particularly important since chronological order is not observed in the recording. Confusion also arises in one instance as a result: the CD appears to have two settings by the same composer, John Tavener. Is that the case, or is one of them, as this writer suspects, in reality the work of the Renaissance composer John Taverner? Had the composers' life dates appeared next to their names, the question of a possible typo would be answered. A few of the composition dates and occasions, notably of the most recent settings, are provided in the text of the note - Locklair's was written in 2000 for St. Thomas Church in New York City; Caldwell's, in 2001 for his daughter's wedding; and Jackson's, in 2002 for these forces, on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the founding of Tewkesbury Abbey - but this is not really adequate.

This is a significant, positive achievement, for several obvious reasons, and it is clearly not a compilation made by a major label with the American religious music listening public in mind. Firstly, it is a finer cross section, with greater variety, breadth, and depth, than would have been produced by a major label that had sales and marketing as its primary goal. Second, the ubiquitous saccharine mid-20th century setting by Albert Hay Malotte (actually composed in 1935, but popularized after the 1950s) is noticeably absent. Third, the CD includes several very recent and fine settings that many a label would have shied away from due to lack of name recognition. Concerning the Locklair setting, Caldwell rightfully says, "It is fairly concise in its treatment of the text but is harmonically rich, and exploits the textural resources of a full choir in an imaginative way." It is truly lovely but nonetheless unknown to the larger public, and would therefore not have been selected by a less informed and discerning compiler. Fourth, the singing is mostly a cappella; the organ, when it is used (as in the Duruflé and the Martin), is so discreet as to be purely supportive and nearly unnoticeable, rather than spewing forth the glamorous accentuating crescendos and climaxes so cherished by the aforementioned segment of the listening public. Thus, this recording has a great deal to recommend it and is a true joy to listen to. It's a pity that the details in the booklet were less meticulously prepared than the selection, arrangement, and performance of the works.

Note: The publisher did not respond to inquiries concerning the Taverner/Tavener question or requests for information about John Caldwell.