Brewer -----> Classical Music Reviews


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The Choral Music of Herbert Brewer (1865-1928) Laudate Directed by Howard Ionascu With Joseph Nolan, organ Let the People Praise Thee As the Hart Pants Blessing, Glory, Wisdom and Thanks Magnificat in Bflat Nunc Dimittis in Bflat O Death where is thy Sting God is our Hope and Strength Prevent us, O Lord Magnificat in C Nunc Dimittis in C O Lord God A Solemn Prayer God Within Bow Down Thine Ear, O Lord Magnificat in D Nunc Dimittis in D Recorded in St John’s Church, Holland Road, London, UK On 22-24 April 2002 Priory Records PRCD 797 [76’58”] Priory records have carved out an excellent niche for themselves as the world’s biggest label recording church music. Their imaginative collections have a devoted following and they are not averse from using otherwise unrecorded groups and giving them a fairly free reign on what to record. This disc of music by Herbert Brewer is just such an example. Laudate are a young choir based in London, founded in 1998 and following the model of such famous establishments as Trinity College, Cambridge in performing the traditional repertoire of the Anglican Church using a smallish group consisting of sopranos and altos (rather than the traditional boy trebles and male countertenors) with the tenors and basses. It is a grouping that works well in this music. Laudate seems to consist of 17 singers on this recording, although rather oddly there are 25 in the photo of the choir on the back of the booklet. (What were the others doing?) The balance that this gives is excellent, especially in the unaccompanied works such as “As the Hart Pants”. In the accompanied pieces there is an argument for adding more voices to the soprano line. The balance of the parts in the traditional line-up is more weighted toward the treble line, and this is a feature that composers in this field would have had in mind when writing the way they did. This is, however, but a personal preference; these sopranos hold their own admirably. The music itself is superb. Herbert Brewer was the Organist and Master of the Choristers at Gloucester Cathedral from 1896 until his death in 1928 and is firmly in that school of English organist/composers, founded by Stanford, who occupied the organ lofts of the great cathedrals throughout the first decades of the 20th century. It was a period where English music really had something distinctive to say, based largely on the resurgent strength of the Church of England in the Victorian era. It is not necessarily music that is very fashionable today (although vastly more so than even 30 or 40 years ago) and yet there is so much variety, beauty and sheer technical competence that it is difficult for even the most modern of modernist agnostics not to have a grudging respect for it. The most famous work recorded here is Brewer’s best-known setting of the Canticles for the service of Evensong, known in the trade simply as “Brewer in D.” It is a marvellous setting full of great swinging melodies and receives a performance of conviction from Laudate. The same can be seen in the splendid ending of the great anthem “Blessing, Glory, Wisdom and Thanks” in which the choir exhibits excellent control of a full-bodied fortissimo on the final Amen. There are one or two quibbles about the recording process. Priory have long made a point of recoding such discs using only a single microphone, centrally placed, arguing that this captures the most natural version of the performance. This may be true, but it also shows a major drawback in the recording of accompanied music. When we listen to this repertoire performed live, our ears naturally balance what we are hearing. To get the same sense of natural balance in a recording is rather more complicated and is hardly achievable in the single mic format. The result is that many of the accompanied works end up with the organ simply sounding too distant. This is, of course, because it is usually further away from the microphone, behind the choir. Live, the ear would compensate, taking in the full ability of the organ to fill the acoustic. That is where ambient mics are so crucial in the recording process. As an example of the shortcoming that this format produces, the ending of the service in D should have the choir absolutely struggling to maintain themselves against the full reeds of the organ. The overall sound should be simply blazing. What we hear instead is the choir singing lustily, and the organ, with all reeds present, sounding contained and somewhat remote. A ‘natural’ balance can be more convincingly achieved by separate mics on the organ, ambient mics at the back of the church and careful control of the post recording mix. Although Joseph Nolan accompanies with much sensitivity and grace there are a number of uncomfortably loud registration changes from the organ where thumping piston noise is prominent. This is a shame and, again, not something that it is impossible to get around. As a general response, this disc is heartily to be welcomed. The recording quality is not all it could be, given the drawbacks mentioned above, but the performances are uniformly excellent, the diction of the choir being particularly worthy of praise. Howard Ionascu controls the group well, there is a variety of beauty, excitement and power, and above all the music is splendid stuff. If Brewer is still an unknown name, this disc is as good a place as any to start finding out why he should not remain so. (Peter Wells)

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