A Song of Farewell: Music of Mourning and Consolation is, in many ways, an aural discussion of death. While this description may sound depressing or daunting, the album presents, as the subtitle suggests, a comfort that poignantly complements the sadness. Though famed in the world of early music, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort present a range of British/English composers in this album, from Robert White in the late-sixteenth century to present day with Jonathan Dove. What draws these composers together in this well-thought out album is not only region of origin, but each composer’s sensitive approach to a cappella text setting.
The album opens with two settings of Drop, drop, slow tears, first by Orlando Gibbons (arranged by Victorian-era English priest Percy Dearmer) and then by William Walton, followed by similar pairings of texts set by both early and twentieth/twenty-first century composers. The central work is a conscientious and stirring performance of Herbert Howell’s Requiem, a work often associated with the death of the composer’s young son in the 1930s.
The Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral was not a surprising choice of local for these recordings to take place. This heralded acoustic needs to be treated with care, however, as sometimes rhythmic vivacity can seem a bit drowned in the space, as was the case in John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers’ Olde English Madrigals and Folk Songs recording. I thought McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, however, use the Lady Chapel’s resonance well in this album and somehow leverage the space to create a sense of intimacy with the listener.
There is something pervasively English about this choir’s sound, and their clear-toned early music practice certainly informs their interpretation of later composers like Howells and Elgar, to much success. Yet at the same time, the robustness of the Victorian repertoire is well presented and clearly contrasted from the earlier repertoire. As McCreesh mentions in the liner notes, there is an intangible something particular to the English/British approach to mourning throughout their history with Christianity - an idea certainly explored with this album, not only in choice of repertoire but in how the choir approaches performance of English (or British, in the case of James MacMillan) repertoire from different times with an established continuity.
The liner notes on this album make it worth buying a hard copy - the interview-style discussion between McCreesh and Greg Skidmore make a very strong case for this work to be looked at as a complete album, rather than a collection of disparate tracks from different composers. In addition to first-rate performances of well-selected British music, this album offers a lot to think about, not only in relation to Englishness and death, but also the timeless and universal aspects of life and music.
By Katherine Bank