When David Heard

English and American choral masterpieces

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Catalogue Number: 5060192780925


This is a lovely collection in every way. The singing is beautiful, the program is very wisely chosen, and the recording is spacious without being muddy. There is a sufficient range of musical styles here to hold one’s interest over the disc’s one hour length. The Purcell Singers was founded in 1994 by Mark Ford, who continues to serve as their music director. The group should not be confused with the Purcell Singers that were founded in 1932 by Imogen Holst. I am not sure whether this group chose its name to honor the earlier ensemble or not. These a cappella choral works all date from the twentieth century, either from England or America. There are some unfamiliar pieces and some that will be well known to lovers of choral music. Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium has been recorded many times, and while I will not claim that the present performance tops all the others, I can confidently say that it is as good as any I have heard. The Purcell Singers, whether conducted by their founder Mark Ford or by frequent guest conductor Jonathan Schranz, seem never content to just sing the notes correctly. They are sensitive to the texts and the colors of the music, communicating those elements vividly. Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei is the composer’s own arrangement of his Adagio for Strings (he knew a hit tune when he found one), and it is as lovely and effective in this choral setting as in either the original string quartet form or the full string orchestra version. Benjamin Britten’s Flower Songs were composed in 1950 as a 25th wedding anniversary present for Leonard and Dorothy Emhirst, good friends of the composer who were, among other things, keen botanists. Thus the subject of the lovely cycle, which finds Britten at his most straightforward and direct. The major work on the disc, which gives the CD its title, is When David Heard by Eric Whitacre. This 13-minute score was composed in 1999, and its origin is surely part of the reason for its power. It was commissioned by Dr. Ronald Staheli through the Brigham Young University Singers on the occasion of the death of Staheli’s son in an automobile accident. Whitacre took his text from the Second Book of Samuel, “When David heard that Absalom was slain, He went up into his chamber over the gate, and wept. And thus he said, ‘O my son, my son Absalom!’ Would God I had died for thee! O Absalom my son, my son!” You can see how these grieving sentiments would be enormously powerful, and Whitacre has applied great imagination in depicting the emptiness felt by King David without becoming maudlin. I found this performance much more impactful than an earlier recording with the Brigham Young University Singers, partly because the actual recorded sound has more presence here (the earlier recording was overly reverberant) and partly because the Purcell Singers inflect the text with far greater specificity. Everything on this disc was a pleasure to hear. From the hushed beauty of James Erb’s arrangement of Shenendoah to the powerful anthem Bring Us, O Lord God by the British composer William Henry Harris, the wide range of emotion makes for a totally absorbing experience. Excellent notes along with complete texts round out the picture. Five stars: A lovely and moving collection of choral works, beautifully sung and recorded (Fanfare)

This mixed bag of a programme from the Purcell Singers ranges from Elgar (a characterful account of the popular My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land) to Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard, by way of Barber’s Agnus Dei, Howells’s Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, and Britten’s Five Flower Songs, among others. The conducting is shared our between Messrs Ford and Schranz. The Purcell Singers make a pleasing, well-blended sound, beautifully showcased on many tracks on this CD, but perhaps nowhere more so than in James Erb’s arrangement of Shenandoah … more often than not they create a very special choral magic, such as in Morten Lauridsen’s popular O magnum mysterium **** (Choir & Organ)

Although these are all new recordings, this programme is intended as a retrospective of favourite pieces The Purcell Singers have performed since conductor Mark Ford founded the London-based chamber choir 25 years ago. Its 40 members make a warmly-blended sound in the opening track, Elgar’s ‘My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land’, with alertly sharpened accents on the pulsing rhythms of verses three and four, and a sudden flaring of emotion when the dead lover’s heart is contemplated in the final line, ‘colder that the clay’. That mix of fulsome tonal blend and insightful word-pointing continues throughout the recital, in a feelingly shaped Barber ‘Agnus Dei’, a dynamically proactive take on Harris’s eight-art ‘Bring us, O Lord God’ and a probing account of Howells’s ‘Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing’. Britten’s ‘Flower Songs’ pose bigger technical challenges, but the Purcell Singers meet them impressively in a punchy, crisply articulated ‘Marsh Flowers’ and a version of ‘The Ballad of Green Broom’ which is nimbly playful while avoiding archness. Eric Whitacre’s 13-minute ‘When David Heard’ is another major test of technique and concentration, and while the clustered harmonies don’t always emerge with pinpoint clarity the searing emotional arc of the piece is compellingly communicated, with telling demarcations between the successive stages on its journey of grief and lamentation. Conducting duties are shared between Mark Ford and Jonathan Schranz, and the sound is excellent. ****/***** (BBC Music)

Track listing
  1. My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land (Elgar)
  2. Agnus Dei (Barber)
  3. Bring us, O Lord God (Harris)
  4. Shenandoah (Erb)
  5. Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing (Howells)
  6. O Magnum Mysterium (Lauridsen)
  7. To Daffodils (Britten)
  8. The Succession of the Four Sweet Months (Britten)
  9. Marsh Flowers (Britten)
  10. The Evening Primrose (Britten)
  11. Ballad of Green Broom (Britten)
  12. Abide With Me (Monk/Hogan)
  13. Drop, Drop, Slow Tears (Leighton)
  14. When David Heard (Whitacre)