Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
This recording celebrates a century of musical innovation at St Michael's, the historic church on Cornhill in the heart of the City of London. All the music is in some way connected with the church and the 66-minute programme gives us an interesting survey of less familiar music from both the 20th and 21st centuries. The best-known name is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) who contributes three pieces. "Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge" uses both the prayer-book text of Psalm 90 and Isaac Watts's metrical version of the same psalm, "O God, Our Help In Ages Past", with the hymn-tune "St Anne" running through it like a golden thread and when it is picked up by William Morley's trumpet solo at the end the effect is memorably moving. RVW's "A Vision of Aeroplanes" was written in 1956 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Harold Darke's appointment as Director of Music at St Michael's and is also appropriate as the Honourable Company of Air Pilots celebrates an annual service at the church. The text comes from Ezekiel 1 where the prophet saw something with wings flying and making a mighty noise which the composer thinks may have been a vision of aeroplanes, possibly biplanes. Even with a pinch of poetic licence I would have to say, probably not - but it is a technically demanding composition that the current choir performs with great skill and confidence. Vaughan William's final contribution is his well-known setting of John Bunyan's "Valiant-For-Truth" although the Cornhill tradition, following a suggestion from the composer, is to take the concluding "and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side" very quietly. The rest of the programme is much less familiar and indeed features several first recordings. The highlight for this listener is "Memoria" by the current Composer in Residence at St Michael's, Rhiannon Randle (born 1993). It begins with the tolling of the church bell and takes its text from the Latin 24th Responsory of Tenebrae, based on Isaiah 57. With a touch of genius, the composer uses the Chinese stringed instrument the erhu, here played by Colin Huehns, to add a haunting counterbalance to the vocal lines. Like the rest of the programme, including Arnold Bax's idiosyncratic setting of the Magnificat from 1949, this is a journey into the unexpected although rooted in the Anglican choral tradition. The singing of the small choir of 12 under Jonathan Rennart is excellent and listeners who like to go off the beaten track, so to speak, will enjoy the journey and collectors of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams will be particularly keen to investigate.
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