Willan: Hymns, anthems, motets/Elora Festival

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Anyone who’s sung a Healey Willan anthem or motet or Mass knows and appreciates this composer’s consummate mastery of vocal writing and, most importantly, his understanding of the unique possibilities of the “choral voice” for imparting the meaning of a text, giving impressionistic imagery to a phrase with just a bit of perfectly chosen color or texture or voicing. He has an exquisite sense of integrating melody with harmony so that every line sings like a melody, and at any given moment every note is crucial to the harmonic function and effect. Especially in his a cappella motets, the phrases–often irregular–breathe and flow naturally; and no one can say Willan didn’t know how to construct great endings, even for his shortest, simplest pieces.

This fine recording gathers a wide range of Willan’s church music, from the popular hymn-anthems on “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”, “Picardy”, and “O quanta qualia”, to various shorter a cappella motets and longer accompanied ones, to the beautiful Missa brevis No. XI. With the anthem I looked, and behold a white cloud, for choir, tenor soloist, and organ, Willan provides a tasteful, tuneful, and eloquently expressive alternative to overwrought examples of the genre by more celebrated composers such as Stanford and Mendelssohn. With his Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae (one of 14 Willan settings of the Missa brevis) Willan offers a perfect gem combining richly colored choral writing with clear, warmly sensitive explication of the texts, the technique owing at least something to Palestrina. Unlike many strictly functional Mass settings–and at seven minutes, this one is exceptionally functional!–this one imparts liturgical meaning while holding its listeners in thrall to its musical beauty. This was an excellent repertoire choice by Noel Edison and his Elora Festival Singers, for it’s an outstanding example of Willan’s considerable talent and it’s one of the finest settings of the Missa brevis you’ll ever hear.

Which brings us to the choir. Ontario’s Elora Festival Singers and director Noel Edison should be declared national treasures by the Canadian government. The artistic care and professionalism that they commit to every project are exemplary, and there’s no doubt that Healey Willan could have no finer advocates than these outstanding musicians (and there are many strong contenders for that honor among Canada’s unrivalled and impressive cadre of choral ensembles!). If you haven’t heard Willan, this is a great introduction. And if you have, you should know that the disc’s final track, the beloved motet Rise up, my love, my fair one, is without question its ideal recorded realization, the thing that proves that Edison and his choir really understand what Willan is about and know how to bring his uniquely expressive choral forms to life. And it’s reason enough to own this CD, a performance so sure and lovely that you want to hear it again and again. [5/17/2006]



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Recording Details:

HEALEY WILLAN - Hymns, Anthems, & Motets (includes In the heavenly kingdom; O how glorious; Preserve us, O Lord; O King all glorious; Christ hath a garden; Hymn--St. Osmund; I looked, and behold a white cloud; Missa brevis No. XI "Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae"; Rise up, my love, my fair one)


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