REVIEWS:  divine art  dda 25053 "The Testament of Dr Cranmer"

MUSICWEB DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP MAY 2010: (Discovery of the Month)

I came across Robert Hugill's music by accident.  It had been brought to my attention that I hadn't included any Divine Art recordings in my Roundups for a long time, so I was browsing the Naxos Music Library to see and hear what was available.  Having listened to the first work on this CD, I was sold.  John Quinn [see Musicweb review below] called the central work sincere and dramatic and I'm happy to endorse both that description and his reference to the performances of everything here as expert and committed.  JQ's only reservation was that there was, perhaps, a little too much of the serious side of Hugill's music.  I think I might prefer to describe most of it as quiet and contemplative rather than serious just the thing for the end of a bad-hair day.  I shan't be listening to this as often as to the Chandos Howells CD (below), but I already knew that I loved Howells' music.

It was The Testament of Dr Cranmer that first caught my attention in the event, not the most striking work on the CD.  Though I'm from the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, Cranmer is as much a hero figure for me as he is for the composer, not least for the wonderful prose which he bequeathed us until the modern shopping-basket language displaced it.  Do try this in one form or another buy the CD if you are unhappy about downloading.  Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can try it there.
Brian Wilson

Robert Hugill is a mainly self-taught composer who has written charming music which is easy on the ear. Much is linked to chant, something that the composer was brought up with during his time with catholic church choirs. This disc comprises 77 minutes of music for vocal octet, tenor and strings, as well as octet and organ. Much has been specifically re-arranged for this recording.

The tenor soloist in The Lord bless thee and What is Man? is Christopher Watson. His beauty of sound appears effortless, yet he brings the impassioned moments directly to our attention with style. The eight voices of the ‘eight:fifteen’ vocal ensemble produce a radiant sound that is full of potential. Octets are notoriously difficult for achieving balanced and blended results, but there are only occasional lapses, which do not come close to distracting us from the many superb things we hear. Brough capably directs the two very different groups of musicians with considerable aplomb.

This is a disc of initial unknowns, but the end result is delightful.
Will Dawes

English composer Robert Hugill (born 1955) originally studied Mathematics at Manchester University, but his real passion is obviously music: he has composed, especially for voice, in many genres, from sacred choral music to opera and cabaret, and in 1994 founded his own choir FifteenB. He is also a member of the Latin mass choir at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Chelsea. His style is attractive and accessible, though far from anodyne: audible influences range from plainsong to Britten and beyond.

The disc opens with two works written for friends’ weddings, the first for tenor and strings and the second arranged for solo violin and string orchestra. “What is Man?”, a setting of extracts from William Blake’s “Jerusalem” for tenor and strings and four motets from Hugill’s collection of Introits for the church year, “Tempus per Annum” follow, before “The Testament of Dr. Cranmer”, a work for unaccompanied choir utilizing the "De Profundis" and parts of Cranmer’s final speech before being led to his death at the scaffold takes up the ensuing 20 minutes. The disc concludes with a "Salve Regina" for unaccompanied 5-part choir, the 'Agnus Dei' from Hugill’s “Missa Veni Sancte Spiritu” for ATB and organ, and a "Nunc Dimittis" for the same forces.

Hugill seems, above all, if not a utilitarian then a practical church composer of real inspiration. Fears of his music tending towards the derivative are quickly dispelled in favour of an impression that here is an original, yet highly personable voice. Clarity and mystery go hand in hand – this applies to the performances as well. Tenor Christopher Watson, whose pedigree as a consort singer is impeccable (he regularly sings with Polyphony, The King’s Consort, The Sixteen and many more besides), gives poised dignity to “The Lord Bless Thee” and “What is Man?”, while violinist Simon Baggs is equally eloquent in the beautiful “Faith, Hope and Charity”. In all three works, the strings of the Chameleon Arts Orchestra provide solid support.

Vocal ensemble eight:fifteen brings a delicate transparency to the four motets from “Tempus per Annum” and "Salve Regina", while the deeply moving text and more variegated emotional chiaroscuro of “The Testament of Dr. Cranmer” elicit a dramatic response of appropriately greater intensity; although there are consequently also moments where balance and intonation are less than ideal. The "Agnus Dei" and "Nunc Dimittis" bring a welcome extension of colour with the introduction of Paul Ayres on organ.

Conductor Paul Brough, Principal Conductor of the Hanover Band, oversees proceedings throughout with a precision and restraint that suits Hugill’s pellucid textures. Hugill’s own booklet note is detailed and informative; the sound recording can seem slightly hard at times but serves the music well nevertheless. Painter Alison Cross’s “Pink Landscape” adorns the cover of this enjoyable release.
William Yeoman

Robert Hugill was born in 1955 in Lincolnshire and, despite a degree in mathematics, found his most rewarding work as a singer, organist and eventually composer, remaining largely self-taught beyond the invaluable experience of knowing music from the inside as a performer.

The most substantial work on this CD is The Testament of Dr Cranmer, an interestingly made musical account of the close of Dr Cranmer's life, being led to execution flanked by priests who tried to drown out his recitation of The Lord's Prayer in English with their Latin -- an effect splendidly achieved in the recording by eight:fifteen vocal ensemble (for which Hugill is artistic director). The work includes text from Cranmer's speech at the scaffold, and the Latin hymn De Profundis for which Hugill uses both contrasting melodies from the Roman Gradual. The twenty-minute work, which tends to lay aside musical ideas in favour of text yet contains some beautifully taught harmonic pungency, was first performed at St Giles Church, Cripplegate, London in July 2001 -- curiously (for a mathematician) described in the composer's notes as 'my 50th birthday'.

There is a disappointing sameness about most of the remaining music on the disc, inhabiting a world of inoffensive gentleness in need of some acidity to drive it along. The choral singers are excellent, and Christopher Watson has a most appealing tenor voice, featuring in two pieces with string orchestra -- The Lord Bless Thee, a wedding song, and What is Man?, an ample cantata with words adapted from Blake's Jerusalem. Of the four Latin motets from Hugill's collection Tempus per Annum, all of which must appeal to any church choir, there is a bright liveliness in Gaudete in Domino and a real understanding of voices in Rorate Coeli.

The performances are excellent and the recording, made in All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London in April 2007, serves both singers and orchestra well and makes listening a pleasure.
Patric Standford

RESMUSICA: (translated from French)
A “testament” in a tonal style.

The English composer Robert Hugill is known in contemporary music circles for his sacred music, written in a tonal language which is distinctive and accessible, as much to professionals as amateurs. He is the founder of the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble and sings himself in a London choir. Paul Brough has assembled a selection of his choral and vocal works under the title The Testament of Dr. Cranmer. Twelve pieces in English and in Latin: Four Motets from Tempus per Annum, Faith, Hope and Charity, Magnificat, Salve Regina, Agnus Dei to name some of them.The title of the disc, The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, evokes the figure of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who is considered the first martyr of the Anglican church and who was responsible for replacing Latin by English in the office of the mass.The selection opens with the composition for tenor and strings, The Lord Bless Thee, originally conceived for soprano and organ. The solo voice dialogues ideally with the orchestra in a type of alternating question and answer. A strong use of strings characterises this album, in the strong spiritual sense which runs through all the works. For example in Faith Hope and Charity the sublime music of the solo violin has the effect of easing troubled spirits.
Francesca Guerrasio

Robert Hugill is a self-taught composer and an accomplished one on the evidence of the contents of this CD. Those who have read his writings on this site will recognise him as someone with a great interest in vocal music, and especially in religious music. He regularly sings as a member of a church choir in London. It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that vocal music with a spiritual leaning lies at the heart of the repertoire on this disc.
The first three items involve a string orchestra and I wonder if Robert Hugill has been best served by the layout of the disc. There’s a strong similarity of style in the string writing. I would have preferred it if these three pieces had been placed separately on the disc, especially as all three are essentially in moderate tempo. Of course, I acknowledge one doesn’t have to play the tracks in order but the newcomer to the disc might well do this. 
The Lord Bless Thee was written to be sung at a wedding by a soprano soloist with organ accompaniment: the string orchestration was made for the present recording. The piece features long plaintive lines for the singer and the upper strings over a drone bass. To my ears the music wears a somewhat serious mien for a nuptial piece.
Faith, Hope and Charity also began life as a wedding song for soprano and organ but the version recorded here, again arranged for the recording, is for string orchestra and solo violin. Once again the tone is serious, almost severe at the start, but as it unfolds the music has a gaunt beauty. Whether by accident or design some of the threads of the preceding two pieces are united in What is Man? Here Hugill brings together solo tenor, solo violin and strings in an extended piece which is a setting of his own selection of words from William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem. The piece is divided into three short arias and four recitatives though these latter are more in an arioso style. Christopher Watson has a light, clear voice. His timbre is such as one would expect from someone with extensive experience in English cathedral choirs and in early music. He sings both this Blake piece and his role in The Lord Bless Thee very expressively and with conviction.
The remainder of the programme is choral and features the eight evidently expert singers who constitute the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble. The principal work, and the one that gives the programme its title, is The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, an extended work for unaccompanied singers. This work, first performed in 2001, commemorates the execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556). Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 until his death. In this role he was a leading figure in the first phase of the English Reformation under Henry VIII. Inevitably he fell foul of Henry’s Catholic successor, Queen Mary and was tried for treason and burned at the stake. Robert Hugill himself has compiled the libretto for The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, drawing upon an eyewitness account of Cranmer’s execution and weaving into this core text the Latin De Profundis and the Pater Noster – though the latter is also sung in English. It’s abundantly clear that Cranmer is a figure who has come to have an enormous significance for Hugill and he writes that he hopes to compose a full oratorio about this leading English Protestant martyr. The music is, like everything else on this disc, firmly tonal, though leavened with a good pinch of dissonance. Several passages are searingly dramatic but there are a number of more meditative, prayerful sections. Overall the music is sincere and communicative and it’s expertly performed.
The remaining vocal music is less ambitious in scale. The four motets come from a collection, entitled Tempus per Annum, which Hugill has devised as a cycle of the Mass Introits for the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical year. These short pieces sound quite demanding of the singers but not outrageously so. I suspect they would not be beyond the competency of an able, well-directed choir. My two favourites among the four included here were Populus Sion, the music of which reveals itself only gradually but which has a fine radiance towards the end, and Gaudete, which is one of the few pieces on the disc in a lively tempo.
This well produced disc features committed performances from musicians who serve Robert Hugill well. My main difficulty with the collection is that, for my taste, too much of the music wears a serious countenance. In a piece like Gaudete, Robert Hugill shows that he can write lively, happy music. I would have welcomed a couple more pieces in this vein so as to give a more rounded portrait of a highly committed composer. The sound is excellent and the documentation, including notes by the composer, is very good although the dates of composition of the various pieces are not supplied.  
John Quinn

A celebratory church music recording marking the 450th anniversary of the death of the doctor in the title. Us Yanks might not get it so much, but this a high end Church event across the pond. A well played performance, anyone with a hankering for getting deeper into some church oriented programs is well advised to open an ear in this direction.
Chris Spector