Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
Being capable of multi-tasking I did some research while listening to this well-presented CD. My first port of call was the indispensable 10-CD box 'English Choral Music of the 20th Century' performed by the excellent Choir of St John's College, Cambridge under Christopher Robinson on the Naxos label (reviewed elsewhere on this site and still in print). The Naxos set runs in alphabetical order from Lennox Berkley to William Walton and if we start with Berkley then clearly there is no Bairstow. Sadly, this probably sums up the legacy of Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) as being the best of the rest (and returning to the Naxos collection he is in good company, as composers as popular as John Rutter and Ralph Vaughan Williams do not make the cut either). Bairstow was one of the Britain's most iconic composers of sacred music in the Edwardian era. After holding posts in London, Wigan, and Leeds, he served as organist of York Minster from 1913 to his death, when he was succeeded by his former pupil Francis Jackson. If you like Edwardian choral music then Bairstow is your man and on this disc the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum under Simon Bell and with the reliable Carleton Etherington on organ give us a good performance. There are still some standouts after all these years. The opening "Blessed city, heavenly Salem" is Bairstow's best-known anthem and here benefits from an excellent treble solo from a former BBC Radio Two Young Chorister of the Year in Cassian Pichler-Roca. This is, to my ears, the standout track but I have to say it is easily available in other collections so you should check to see whether you already have it before investing in this version. The same could be said for "The Lamentation", another good anthem readily available elsewhere. There are, though, two first recordings to consider. The title track, "Our Father In The Heavens" dates from 1932 and is a complex setting of J. Leash's metrical version of the Lord's Prayer that succeeds in making the familiar words fresh and is a piece I may listen to again in my personal devotions. The concluding hymn-anthem is also a first recording. It is "Jesu, grant me this I pray" from Gibbons' Song 13. It is a choral showpiece and while I expect most congregations would struggle with it, a choir director looking for something special may find it worth investigating. If my comments make this release out to be only of historical interest, I have sold it short. The music is dated but then Bairstow died in 1946 and Simon Bell and his choir do all they can to breathe new life into the anthems. The recording quality is excellent and the booklet notes interesting so if you enjoy traditional Anglican choral singing this is worth a listen.
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