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February 11, 2021
 

The Indefatigable George McPhee

The Choir of Paisley Abbey: making a valuable contribution to our exploration of contemporary and 20th century Scottish sacred choral music. (Photo: Paisley Abbey Facebook page)

 

By Robert Hugill

 

 

A Celtic Prayer

The Choir of Paisley Abbey

Director: George McPhee

Organ: David Gerrard; Bass Flute: Ewan Robertson

Priory

 

 

This disc from George McPhee and the choir of Paisley Abbey celebrates contemporary Scottish church music with a program of choral and organ pieces by Scottish composers, many with links to the abbey, interleaved with works from the Scottish pre-Reformation period.

George. McPhee

It is difficult not to apply the word indefatigable to George McPhee; born in 1937, he celebrated his 50th anniversary as director of music at Paisley in 2013. The disc features McPhee in three roles, as composer, as conductor and as organist, playing three of his own works on the abbey’s organ (originally built in 1872 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll).

The disc opens with McPhee’s Benedictus es Domine, a vigorously attractive piece for choir and organ, which has a practical, hymn-like aspect to it. McPhee’s A Celtic Prayer sets a modern translation of a Gaelic prayer, for choir and organ with a nicely sinuous melody and imaginative mix of choir and organ. McPhee is the soloist for three of his organ works, Prelude on “Bunessan,” using a hymn-tune based on a Scottish folk melody (best known as Morning Has Broken), is lilting and gently melodic with a similar mood in Prelude on “Quem Pastores” whilst the Trumpet March forms a suitably uplifting closing piece, the sort you can imagine being played at the end of a fine service.

Prelude on ‘Bunessan’, using a hymn-tune based on a Scottish folk melody (best known as Morning has Broken), written by George McPhee, performed by the Choir of Paisley Abbot, with David Gerrard on organ. From A Celtic Prayer.

Martin Dalby’s carol, Mater salutaris, is an imaginatively intimate piece for choir and organ setting a modern translation of a macaronic medieval poem. Dalby, a pupil of Herbert Howells, was head of music for BBC Scotland and Mater salutaris was written in 1981 for the choir of the High School of Glasgow.

James MacMillan’s Chosen was written in 2003 for George McPhee’s 40th anniversary as music director at the abbey. The booklet note tells us that MacMillan’s Sanctus was performed at the abbey when MacMillan was a pupil at Cumnock Academy! Chosen sets a poem from Her Maker’s Maker by Michael Symonds Roberts (born 1963). The work opens with a unison choral line that could not but be by anyone but MacMillan. Symonds Roberts’ poem is a questioning meditation for the Virgin Mary, ending with the line ‘Why was my chosen one chosen?’, which MacMillan sets in a highly affecting manner. This is quite a substantial piece, textures moving from the intimacy of a single vocal line and drones on the organ to rich, piercing full choral.

Thomas Wilson has been in the record catalogues for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s (RSNO) recordings of his symphonies [see my first review and my second review], of which the fourth, Passeleth Tapestry, was premiered by the RSNO at the abbey. Beautifully wrought and nicely intimate, There is no Rose for four-part unaccompanied choir, was written in 1974, its traditional style perhaps belies its date.

Stuart MacRae took park in Scottish Opera’s Five:15–Operas Made in Scotland in 2009, and subsequent works for Scottish Opera have included The Devil Inside with a libretto by Louise Welsh which was premiered in 2016 in a Scottish Opera/Welsh National Opera co-production. MacRae’s Adam lay ybounden was written in 2003 for a Royal School of Church Music festival at the abbey. Unaccompanied and full of intense, close harmonies, the work uses organ but not so much to support the choir as to comment.

For many years master of music at St Andrew’s University, Cedric Thorpe Davie studied with RVW and with Kodaly, and is best known today for his film scores. His setting of a text by George Wither (1580-1667), The Lord is He whose strength doth make me strong for choir and organ has a vigorous hymn-like quality to it, whilst Come, Holy Ghost, the Maker is more intimate, with some beautiful moments, yet still with a nod to hymnody.

Three Donne Lyrics, No. 1: Hear Us, O Hear Us, composed by Edward McGuire. Performed by the Choir of Paisley Abbey, with Director George McPhee, bass flute by Ewan Robertson. From A Celtic Prayer.

Three Donne Lyrics, No. 2: At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, composed by Edward McGuire. Performed by the Choir of Paisley Abbey, with Director George McPhee, bass flute by Ewan Robertson. From A Celtic Prayer.

I first came across the music of Edward McGuire on the Red Note Ensemble’s 2015 disc Entangled Fortunes devoted to McGuire’s chamber music. On this disc we have his Three Donne Lyrics, which were written in 2017 for the abbey choir and Ewan Robertson (bass flute). Robertson, flautist with the orchestra of Scottish Opera, has been a member of the abbey’s congregation for many years. It is perhaps worthy of note that McGuire, besides his classical training, plays the flute with the Scottish traditional music group The Whistlebinkies.

The three Donne texts that he has chosen are not strictly religious, though each is about the poet’s relationship to God. “Hear us, O hear us” introduces us to the fascinating texture of choir and bass flute, and there is something slightly folk-like about the piece. Its gentle lilt taking some of the anxious intensity from Donne’s words. Despite Donne’s use of trumpets, McGuire’s setting of “At the round earth’s imagined corners” is nicely intimate and thoughtful, with some close, rich harmonies and the bass flute providing an atmospheric commentary. “Ascension” continues the mood, with a long opening solo for the flute and some evocative close harmonies for the choir. These are thoughtful pieces, capturing a rather different mood in Donne.

Owen Swindale wrote is setting of George Herbert’s Trinity Sunday in 1990 for the Arran Chorus. As well as his teaching at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Scottish Conservatoire), Swindale was known for his jewelry craftsmanship on the Isle of Arran. The text’s striking first line is “Lord, who has formed me out of mud”! Swindale creates a practical and nicely wrought anthem for choir and organ from his setting.

Gaude Maria Virgo, composed by Robert Johnson, a priest who wrote music at Scone Abbey. Paisley Abbey Choir with Director George McPhee, from A Celtic Prayer.

Benedicam Domino, composed by Robert Johnson, a priest who wrote music at Scone Abbey. Paisley Abbey Choir with Director George McPhee, from A Celtic Prayer.

The disc also contains a group of works by Robert Johnson, a priest who wrote music at Scone Abbey. These are four-part settings, a glimpse of the musical culture that would be swept away by the Scottish Reformation. Johnson’s polyphonic motets provide a lovely foil for the more contemporary works.

This is a finely imaginative program and rightly a celebration of McPhee’s work at the abbey with his choir. The choir line-up uses a mix of girl trebles (five) and adult women (four) with the total number of choristers being 25. It is quite a challenging program and the choir is on admirable form here. The recording seems to capture occasional moments of uncertainty, but overall they do the music fine justice. This outing is very much an exploration of composers who are often under-represented on disc and, as such, is a valuable contribution to our exploration of contemporary and 20th century Scottish sacred choral music.

(Photo of George McPhee courtesy www.paisleyabbey.org.uk)

 

 

Reviews published here by permission of Robert Hugill at Planet Hugill, a singer, composer, journalist, lover of opera and all things Handel. To receive Robert’s lively monthly This month on Planet Hugill e-newsletter, sign up on his Mailing List. (Robert Hugill photo by Robert Piwko.