Richard Allain: Choral Music. Choir of Merton College, Oxford / Benjamin Nicholas. © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Gorgeously Sung

Choral music by Richard Allain,
heard by RODERIC DUNNETT

'The music is undoubtedly beautiful, without exception.'

 

This is Richard Allain's second full collection on disc. Enterprising Delphian has already issued nearly seventy minutes of his choral music - all, satisfyingly, different items from those on this gorgeously sung Merton College Choir disc - on DCD 34026 ('When I've Gone'), featuring the choir Laudibus and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, both superbly crafted ensembles, as this is, and directed in his heyday by the immensely enabling Mike Brewer.

That richly crafted disc included the Marian Salve Regina, a Missa Brevis (with a particularly fine extended Agnus Dei), and the desirable motet Memento Homo. The last, running to a full eleven minutes, includes a saxophone solo, unforgettably delivered by John Harle, which coincides with the present disc, whose ninth item, O Day-Spring, extracted from one of the seven sections of the Marian Vespers, also features a (soprano) saxophone, to which Allain allocates the expressive Plainsong melody O Oriens.

A finely calculated introduction of Plainsong, or indeed subtle adaptations of it, forms one of the most salient aspects of Allain's approach. The soprano line on the third track on this Merton recording is derived from the Nunc Dimittis Plainsong; that for Asperges me - 'Thou shalt purge me with hyssop ...' - most appropriately emerges in a reevoking of Christ's baptism by John the Baptist - The Beloved: 'Above Him the dove will linger in flight / As the Light is bathed in water ... / And a voice will tear the heavens apart'. This is one of several texts furnished by the composer's brother, who has also collaborated on several works for young performers, and whose compact lines, meticulously crafted, include those for the works Cana's Guest and The Magi's Gifts.

Of Allain's careful craftsmanship, and intentions, there seems no reasonable criticism. Joanna Wyld's notes, lacking (or denied space for?) biographical information but otherwise admirably complete, urge the case for our respect for this careful design aspect of Allain's writing, She is surely right, and this will be one of the reasons for Merton under Benjamin Nicholas championing this composer.

What this finesse does not universally convert into is impact. The music is undoubtedly beautiful, without exception. Yet where Wyld espies subtle word-painting, nicely finessed insights into the text, expressive detail, her defence can be a little overstated. One respects, indeed enjoys, Allain's willingness - he addresses modalism too, especially in the final item - to make use of diatonic material, often quite lightly extending to added notes - and almost never overegged with thick clusters, like some popular (Baltic) composers today. One knows where his music is leading; there is direction in both harmony and counterpoint. And that feels a considerable asset.

However several of (at least) the earlier works recorded here - the bracing Magnificat, with superbly offset solo sopranos, and a refined underlay on the organ, is an obvious exception - feature a kind of crawling adagio, or at best andante, which creates a kind of samey feeling. These works have their own attraction, and are certainly emotionally involving on this disc, but the approach may not be the best way to word-paint effectively.

At the worst, there is a hint of - albeit exquisite - drudgery. A fine baritone solo opening to the Nunc Dimittis, and attractive upper voice writing, plus a super dove-like and expressive soprano solo, all get round this problem: the conclusion, Gloria, is extremely moving. Yet the pacing poses, if not a problem, a challenge.

Benjamin Nicholas, Merton College's Director of Music and one of the finest choir directors in the country, does not really counteract this. He needs the ammunition. And one thing that shines out is that his soloists - all voices - are quite splendid, and touching, the conducting of them pure and refined. The choir's joint upper lines are no less so, as this illustrates:

Listen — Richard Allain: Nunc dimittis (The Norwich Service)
(track 3, 1:39-2:30) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

It must be remembered, despite the above reservation, that these sensitive works are written for different occasions, and to different commissions - the choir Commotio; a friend's wedding; the RSCM and Wells Cathedral, and so on - hence not originally designed to be heard together, or side by side. The Norwich Evening Service is written, most agreeably, naturally, for Norwich Cathedral - Allain being on the music staff of 920-year-old Norwich School; the Richard Crashaw setting - a fine choice of text - for Collegium Regale, the 'junior' King's Singers.

Indeed, following the enchanting first item - A Perfect Friend, setting a cappella the Shakespearian secular iambics of Robert Louis Stevenson: 'My life shall no wise lack the light of love' - the animation of Allain's Magnificat, designed to fill that magnificent Norman/Romanesque space, is bracing. The organ part is decidedly vivid, sometimes even aptly domineering. Written for Ashley Grote's predecessor as Norwich organist, the versatile David Dunnett - no relation - and here expounded by Alex Little, Merton's other accomplished organist on the disc being Tom Featherstonehaugh, playing the resplendent new mechanical action organ engineered by Iowa-based Dobson, it provides quite an uplift.

And it does indeed respond actively to the words, positively exploding at 'He hath shewed strength':

Listen — Richard Allain: Magnificat (The Norwich Service)
(track 2, 1:26-2:02) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

Allain then brings in a striking ostinato for 'He hath filled the hungry', interspersed with a briefer organ outburst.

At the end Allain, with invaluable inside knowledge, has written a passage specifying (where possible) a Zimbelstern (cymbal star), a tinkling bell-like stop - several pretty tiny bells connected to a rotating wheel - of which - I hang my head - I had never heard. Only a handful of these exist in English cathedrals.

This is the kind of variety, melodic and dynamic invention one would have greatly enjoyed at more stages of this impeccably rehearsed choral disc.

For me, one of the two works that leap out (apart maybe from the Mag and Nunc, and one must add the explosive descent of the Holy Spirit in The Beloved) is Videte miraculum. At fourteen minutes this is the longest work on the disc (and commissioned by the ever-adventurous and resourceful choir motivator Suzi Digby - another accolade for this composer), where Allain works marvels in adapting, stretching, tightening, elaborating and condensing aspects of Tallis' celebrated (and much recorded) nativity anthem of that name: 'Videte miraculum matris Domini: concepit virgo virilis ignara consortii, stans onerata nobili onere Maria; ... castis concepit visceribus: et benedicta in aeternum Deum nobis protulit et hominem.'

Allain's treatment is indeed a hommage, and to my mind, an exhilarating effort. Here once again the composer demonstrates his artistry - and sensitivity - in working, chiselling, the cantus firmus to marvellous effect. It's only in six parts, but Ben Nicholas so energises and stimulates his (mostly undergraduate) choir men and girls that they produce a sound more like forty parts: and indeed, that is the way Allain has surely written it:

Listen — Richard Allain: Videte miraculum
(track 10, 6:01-6:50) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

The work, doggedly exploring and teasing out fragments of the original (as a medieval composer, or indeed a contemporary like Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies, might, decorating the cantus), rich in suspensions - ie daringly or intimately (but rarely abrasively) clashing Seconds that frequently appeal, and to good effect, reveals Allain at his most creative and inventive. Ben Nicholas' often forceful reading here sounds as mesmerising as Sheppard, another Tudor luminary this choir might assay, or indeed may have done in the fabulously conceived Merton Collection on Delphian - eg DCD34122/34/44.

Allain's imagination yields indeed a profound 'reflection' on the Tudor original; that its cascading sopranos - a mite raucous with repetition, perhaps - convey so much power is a perfect indication of the composer's talent at its most shining, matched by these superb singing forces: for pace a number of others, Merton is the tops.

The other work which leapt off my CD player was the last, The Lord Reigns (Psalm 93). It has a richness and proclamatory nature that promises well: and indeed a staccato, or semi-staccato pattern midway - how perfectly these singers bring it off - marks it out. 'Hocketing' - ie offsetting - is another of those medieval techniques Allain makes subtle use of: a vivid ostinato ensues, in choir then organ, then shifting to the pedals. It is varied, even ingenious. The pianissimo of the softer choir voices, almost an echo effect, and perhaps the Delphian technician's finesse, is astonishing. There are just enough added notes to colour the whole, yet not so many as to deprive the item of forward movement. It seems perfectly judged.

Listen — Richard Allain: The Lord reigns
(track 14, 1:44-2:51) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

Perhaps Tallis pops up elsewhere on this disc, for the Stevenson setting is indeed Renaissance in manner. God be in my head cannot quite match Walford Davies, but the last fragment invokes, exhilaratingly, a chord that might be straight out of Allegri. Welcome, all wonders exemplifies nicely all the merits as well as demerits of Allain's handling of text. The clashes, including in the lower parts, are intoxicating; there is even a prehint of the Tallis; the pace is both tender and a bit plodding.

Listen — Richard Allain: Welcome, all wonders
(track 8, 0:36-1:38) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

Another great asset of Allain's regular approach: the inner and lower parts are constantly moving, taking what is sometimes a purely harmonic underlay and giving it, well sometimes, underlying surge and momentum.

The Magnificat Antiphon O Day-spring is an exquisite prayer for which Allain aspires to evoke both emerging light and enlightenment by means of the soprano saxophone, upward-reaching, and sailing across like the boat of the Egyptian Sun-God Ra:

Listen — Richard Allain: O Day-spring
(track 9, 2:31-3:29) © 2018 Delphian Records Ltd :

The issue of word-painting raises, by contrast, an issue. Welcome, all wonders is doubtless a wonderfully touching and affecting setting of Crashaw (1612-1649). Yet does the anthem really capture 'all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span ...'; 'Great little one, whose all-embracing birth / Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.' Think of Finzi. Does this adequately honour a fêted contemporary of Donne, Herbert, of Vaughan and Traherne?

Orsino's 'If music be the food of love' is one of the most expressive openings to Shakespeare's entire œuvre. Allain's first line here starts promisingly. But can this, at worst, wafting, well-intended sludge really be adjudged a detailed response to 'The appetite may sicken, and so die'? Or to ''O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou'? Or the irony? This is a man who is about to fall in love not with a girl but, as he fears, a boy. There is a presiding tenderness that one welcomes; but the treatment is surely, given the Bard's inspiration, a touch pedestrian.

That's what it, in part, sounds like: tellingly close to much of the slow unfoldings on this disc. It fails, surely, almost entirely to pick out, to spike, the words. Allain writes enticingly for solo voices elsewhere. Why not here? The notes talk of 'particularly rich harmonic language' - well, yes and no. Really, despite rise and fall, some not unaffecting hiatuses, and a single explosion ('Enough!) - a good idea - this has scant amount to add to the text. It does not serve it. Same speed, same half-effects. It would be a flop at Stratford.

In The Beloved the dove may linger, but the piece lingers too. Perhaps a little closer to Arvo Pärt, or Gorecki, though not intentionally or derivatively. The harmonic wheel is rather more effectively turned here: but a Toccata-like organ outburst, Marcel Dupré and more, feels not so much visionary as a little naff.

The brief Cana's Guest, one of Allain's most popular anthems (with its wedding theme), has a gorgeous build up - idiomatically it could belong to the era of Bairstow or W H Harris, and none the worse for that. A lovely snatch of tenors exemplifies the in-depth stylishness of this enviably polished choir. The work has more beef about it, but mainly because the volume is somewhat turned up (by the choir, not recording apparatus) and the acoustic here benefits it.

Merton's words, and I write as a longstanding fan, could be better. Clearer consonants and more defined vowels - in English: their 'Videte miraculum' is exemplary - might help this well-cast music have a better chance. Ben Nicholas' former choir, the boys (and men) of the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, always fabulously shaped by him, was consistently outstanding in this respect. 'Sight' emerging as 'sigh'; 'Great' as 'gate'; 'brightest' ('bitest'); head (not hard, or heard). On track 13 'looking', speaking', thinking' are patently different sounds, their contrast part of the point. Allain's music is often a wash of sound; but not a wash of vowels.

To some extent, admittedly, this is the age-old difficulty generated by any counterpoint. Even the slightly Ruttery - hence beauteous - girls-only Prayer of St Richard of Chichester, which has a sweet, simple clarity, and benefits from Allain's neat countermelody which enriches the harmonic scope of the second verse, might, I fear, be more lucid. I wonder how its dedicatees, the girls of Wells Cathedral under Matthew Owens, fared.

But a final hurrah. 'Don't you weep when I am gone', a modern 'Spiritual' scripted again by Thomas Allain, works admirably: everything is clear; and the music has enough echoes of Tippett's famed and moving invention to inherit some of that impact. Fine work here by composer and singers, not least in a highly effective conclusion.

Copyright © 6 February 2019 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK

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