Named by The Economist as one of Twenty Living Polymaths, Sir Stephen Hough combines a worldwide career as a pianist with those of composer and writer. This release celebrates Hough’s compositional output in works for choir and organ performed by the London Choral Sinfonia and James Orford, conducted by Michael Waldron.
MIRABILIS: THE MUSIC OF STEPHEN HOUGH
Stephen Hough (b.1961)
1. Just as I am
6. Agnus Dei
7. Londinium Magnificat
8. Londinium Nunc dimittis
9. Ding Dong Merrily on High
10. Advent Calendar
11. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
12. Silent Night
13. The Gate of the Year
Three Marian Hymns
14. O Sanctissima
15. Salve Regina
16. Ave Maria
17. O soft self-wounding pelican
18. I Allegretto tranquillo
19. II Allegro giocoso
James Orford, organ
20. Danny Boy
London Choral Sinfonia
Michael Waldron, conductor
James Orford, organ
The piano has always been an important part of my life. At the age of 4 I began lessons with a piano teacher who lived around the corner, next door to my grandmother. At home I would sit for hours playing – never the pieces I was meant to be practising or learning – but just about anything I could get my hands on. It taught me to be a good sight-reader, even if it didn’t instil the discipline required to reach the starry heights of a successful soloist!
Like any other piano student, Stephen Hough was, to me, a hero. I devoured his prolific catalogue of recordings. From Schubert to Bowen, I savoured every note. By my teenage years, I was just about competent enough to delve into his Rodgers & Hammerstein transcriptions, which occupied many happy hours. I must confess I never quite conquered any of them, but I still return to them, even to this day.
I rarely play the piano in public now, but it is still my first true musical love and I often sit at home and play simply for pleasure and relaxation, even if it’s staggering through a Hough transcription.
This recording project was first introduced to me by my colleague and friend, Matthew Trusler, at Orchid Classics. We often bat ideas back and forth – not all of which can come to fruition – but as soon as Stephen’s name came up, I was excited and knew this was something worth pursuing. I devoured the scores and fell in love with all of them. Alas, there was too much music for one album, but a part of me wonders (and hopes) that the catalyst for Volume 2 may be somewhere in the ether.
The old adage says you should never meet your heroes. I will proudly testify that to be rubbish. Stephen was actively involved throughout the recordings and was relentlessly supportive and encouraging towards our efforts. Our performances were undoubtedly enhanced by his input, and I hope that this recording goes some way to providing an adequate realisation of these world-class compositions.
My father said that I had memorised seventy nursery rhymes by the age of two. This sounds suspiciously like parental exaggeration to me, but I do know that such singing was my first form of musical expression, especially as we had no classical music in my childhood home. Then, by the age of six, the piano took over … but song remained in the background. Hymns at primary school and church; later, choir at high school (Britten’s Missa Brevis was an eye/ear/mind-opening moment); and, even later, compulsory chorus class at Juilliard.
I wrote a Mass in my teenage years which might still be at the bottom of a drawer somewhere – I fear to disturb the dust. Indeed, my first twenty years were filled with composing. Then followed almost twenty years of blank paper, writing virtually nothing except concert transcriptions for me to use as encores. Until, in my early 40s, I returned to composition with a passion. One of the first pieces I wrote after resharpening my pencils was a setting of Rowan Williams’ Advent Calendar (2004) – now part of the cycle December which is on the present recording, comprising four a cappella settings of poems celebrating the month from Advent to the New Year. In the middle two – Hark the Herald (2007) and Silent Night (2010) – I took well-known texts of Christmas carols and composed new music for them. The final setting – The Gate of the Year (2004) – started life as a solo song for the tenor Robert White, comforting words broadcast on the radio by King George VI as the Second World War began its years of destruction.
Ding Dong Merrily on High (2017) is another familiar carol where I’ve taken the traditional words and written different music for them, this time aiming for maximum exuberance and jangle. It was a Christmas commission from the choir of the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London.
My Londinium Service (2007) was James O’Donnell’s idea: a setting of the Anglican Evensong canticles for sopranos and altos but with dual-language texts – a sort of inbuilt, sung yet unspoken ecumenism. ‘Londinium’ in the title is a tag referencing James’ professional home at the time, Westminster Abbey – a sanctuary across the centuries for the Roman then the English rites. And there is a broader ecumenism. One of the identical words in Latin and English which appears in the canticles is ‘Abraham’, and the brief, joyous, exuberant organ interlude before the doxology of the Magnificat (pedals thundering out the three syllables of that prophet’s name) suggests perhaps a hope for an ever-greater understanding between the three religions which claim him as their spiritual father.
Also for upper voices, the Three Marian Hymns (2004) use a kind of mantra-like repetition in my setting of these ancient prayers to the Virgin Mary – perhaps an echo of the Rosary devotion. In O soft self-wounding Pelican (2007) the original Latin of St Thomas Aquinas has been romantically rendered into Elizabethan verse by Richard Crashaw, echoed in the blush of lush musical language. Then, from such high, medieval Catholicism we move to Victorian Evangelical fervour in Charlotte Elliott’s heartfelt poem Just as I am (2014) which places the individual soul before a compassionate God. In this setting I wanted to bring out the sense of ardour which the words suggest. It was commissioned by Ardingly College’s Robert Costin who was their director of music at the time. After they sang the premiere Robert asked me to write him an organ piece, thus was conceived my …
Sonatina for Organ (2019), in two, short movements. The opening bar of the first consists of a 12-note row, then another row makes up bar two; but such serialism is merely a series of decorative stones, not the architecture of the building. In ABA form, the B section opposes pure diatonic tonality in the right hand with a pentatonic chordal mantra in the left (white versus black notes) until the return of section A which is an exact repeat of the earlier section’s pitches, but now in splashing and darting rhythms where before it had floated along calm waters. The second movement is a boisterous dance, full of exuberance and joy. Alongside the bouncing opening tune, the three musical ideas of the first movement reappear in different guises until the final, blaring coda when, over a pedal D, we hear the 12-note row of bar one of the piece, unison in both hands. After these twelve trumpet blasts the row is heard in an immediate retrograde, now harmonised in the piquant language of the main body of the second movement, before a final, radiant, pentatonic chord.
The main work in this recording is my Missa Mirablis (2007), a commission from Martin Baker for Westminster Cathedral Choir. The central idea, and the central movement, is the Credo – perhaps the most problematic text to set because of its length and the non-poetic nature of the words. But instead of setting it in a descriptive way I wanted to explore aspects of the psychology underlying the nature of belief … and doubt. I divide the lower and upper voices, as if innocence from experience, and only the former actually sing the word ‘Credo’, constantly interrupting the fast-paced mutterings of the tenors and basses. What at first is an encouragement to believe becomes a despairing cry as the pattered rote of the lower voices turns into defiant unbelief. Only baptism is declaimed with any sense of conviction – a last hope dashed as the final clauses about resurrection and eternal life fizzle out. A final ‘Credo’ is sung an octave lower by the upper voices – quietly, as if tired and shattered from their earlier, futile exertion.
Before this drama unfolds, the Kyrie movement has introduced us to a gentler, less complex world of forgiveness, where the melodic and harmonic material is sweet and consoling. The Gloria, joyful in its outer sections, is based on a rising scale and a falling zigzag motive. The Sanctus and Benedictus aim to contrast the divine and the human – the angelic ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ is grand, vast, immense, whereas in the Benedictus God has become human and the music is deliberately and sentimentally intimate, as if two people are sharing a drink in a Parisian café, with a whiff of a 1950s pop tune coming from a neighbouring café’s jukebox.
The Agnus Dei takes the ‘Credo’ motive and develops it in plaintive, unaccompanied chords. When the ‘Lamb of God’ words appear for the third time the expected response is ‘Grant us peace’. But instead of peace the organ begins an interlude of mounting agitation and desperation based on chromatically altered fragments of the opening vocal chords. As this passage reaches its highpoint, with still no sign of ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, the choir sing a fortissimo ‘Agnus Dei’ to the music which had accompanied the baptism clause in the Credo. Finally, as a climax to the whole work, the ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ is sung. The spell has been broken and all gradually becomes calm. The piece ends musically as it began with the same melody of consolation as the Kyrie, as if the Lamb of God has brought the piece to peace, a full circle embracing and healing all creation.
And why ‘Mirabilis’? Purely personal. In September 2006 I gathered together a year’s-worth of sketches for this Mass and wrote three of the movements in three days. The following day I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph. I stepped out of the one, untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact, then wrote part of the Agnus Dei in St. Mary’s Hospital, waiting for four hours for a brain scan. I was conscious, as I was somersaulting with screeching metallic acrobatics on the M1, of feeling regret that I would never get to hear the music on which I’d been working so intensely in the days before. Someone had other ideas.
And Danny Boy (2016) is … Danny Boy! No possibility to change this tune, or to forget it.
“My father said that I had memorised seventy nursery rhymes by the age of two. This sounds suspiciously like parental exaggeration to me, but I do know that such singing was my first form of musical expression, especially as we had no classical music in my childhood home. Then, by the age of six, the piano took over … but song remained in the background.
“My first twenty years were filled with composing. Then followed almost twenty years of blank paper, writing virtually nothing except concert transcriptions for me to use as encores. Until, in my early 40s, I returned to composition with a passion…”
Named by The Economist as one of Twenty Living Polymaths, Sir Stephen Hough combines a distinguished career as a pianist with those of composer and writer. This release celebrates Hough’s compositional output in works for choir and organ performed by the London Choral Sinfonia and James Orford conducted by Michael Waldron.
Hough was a prolific composer in the first 20 years of his life; then in his 40s, after a long hiatus, he returned to composition and has since written works for orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, organ, harpsichord and solo piano, with commissions including the Takacs Quartet, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, Wigmore Hall and Le Musée de Louvre.
Hough’s Missa Mirabilis, at the heart of this recording, explores faith and doubt via the liturgical text of the Creed, and is the result of a life-changing encounter that Hough relates in the album booklet: ‘… why “Mirabilis”? Purely personal. In September 2006 I gathered together a year’s-worth of sketches for this Mass and wrote three of the movements in three days. The following day I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph. I stepped out of the one, untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact, then wrote part of the Agnus Dei in St. Mary’s Hospital, waiting for four hours for a brain scan. I was conscious, as I was somersaulting with screeching metallic acrobatics on the M1, of feeling regret that I would never get to hear the music on which I’d been working so intensely in the days before. Someone had other ideas.’
The release also features two works for high voices: the Londinium Service, a setting of the Anglican evensong canticles in two languages, and the hypnotic Three Marian Hymns. Hough ranges from high medieval Catholicism in the Aquinas-inspired O soft self-wounding pelican, to the ‘Victorian evangelical fervour’ of Just as I am, which ‘places the individual soul before a compassionate God’. The a capella cycle December takes us from Advent to New Year, and Ding Dong Merrily on High is a joyous new setting of familiar words. The album also features Hough’s intricate Sonatina for organ performed by James Orford, and closes with Sir Stephen’s transcription of “Danny Boy”; in his words, “No possibility to change this tune, or to forget it.”
London Choral Sinfonia
Formed in 2015, the LCS has established a reputation as one of the leading chamber choir and orchestral ensembles. A busy performance schedule throughout the year sees the group appearing at venues including Cadogan Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Kings Place and St John’s Smith Square.
Aside from many of the major cornerstones of the repertoire, the LCS also seeks to champion new music, having premiered new works and recordings with numerous composers including Tarik O’Regan, Owain Park, Richard Pantcheff and Ian Assersohn. Recent premieres include former Composer-in-Residence Oliver Rudland’s Christmas Truce, with a libretto by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
Recent performance highlights include Bach Jauchzet Gott with Katherine Watson (soprano) and Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), Bach Motets and Cello Suites with Guy Johnston (cello), Mozart Exsultate Jubilate with Mary Bevan (soprano), Britten St Nicolas with Nick Pritchard (tenor), and Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with Matthew Brook (baritone).
In addition to a busy concert schedule, the extensive LCS discography includes the three-volume collection of works for choir and orchestra by Richard Pantcheff and the award-winning Christmas album, O Holy Night. Their album, Colourise, featuring baritone Roderick Williams and tenor Andrew Staples, was released to critical acclaim. Described by Gramophone as ‘intensely moving’, the album reached over a million streams within the first months of its release. Sword in the Soul – released in April 2023 – was described as ‘beautifully judged’ (Gramophone) and ‘sublime’ (BBC Radio 3). Their latest double-disc release features many world-premiere recordings of works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and was praised for its ‘fine recordings’ (The Sunday Times).
Michael is founder and Artistic Director of the London Choral Sinfonia (LCS), and has worked with many of the top choirs and orchestras in the UK and beyond, including the Philharmonia Orchestra, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Polyphony, London Mozart Players, Holst Singers and City of London Choir. He is Musical Director of Islington Choral Society, Artistic Director of London Lyric Opera and Musical Director of Epworth Choir.
His debut album release with the London Choral Sinfonia, O Holy Night, was selected by The Guardian as one of their top Christmas albums. Together with the LCS, he has since embarked on a multi-album project for Orchid Classics recording orchestral and choral music by Richard Pantcheff. Their album, Colourise, features a previously unrecorded cantata by Lennox Berkeley, and the first recording of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs in an original chamber orchestration, featuring baritone Roderick Williams. Colourise was selected by The Times as one of their Best Albums of 2022.
Michael enjoy an extensive operatic career, including shows and projects for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Buxton International Festival, Opera Della Luna and West Green Opera.
Michael Waldron began his musical training as a chorister at St Ambrose College, Hale Barns. After a gap year Organ Scholarship at Worcester Cathedral, he held the Organ Scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, for four years. Here he studied under Stephen Layton, during which time he was involved with the Choir’s numerous international tours, concerts, broadcasts and recordings.
More information can be found at: www.michael-waldron.com
James Orford is currently the Assistant Director of Music at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge having recently completed a year as the Acting College Organist and Head of Organ at Eton College. His past positions include being Organist in Residence at Westminster Cathedral, before which he was Organ Scholar at St Paul’s Cathedral. Previously, he held the Organ Scholarships at Truro Cathedral, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and King’s College, London. He studied with Bine Bryndorf and David Titterington at the Royal Academy of Music, obtaining top marks in both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. He was awarded the Duchess of Gloucester’s award for exemplary studentship upon completion of his undergraduate course, and was subsequently awarded one of the Academy’s prestigious Bicentenary Scholarships for his Master’s degree.
James enjoys a busy performing schedule and has given recitals and concerts in many of the UK’s most notable venues and at a number of major festivals. In 2021, his debut solo album – a complete organ transcription of Vivaldi’s L’estro Armonico – was released on the Linn Record Label. He appears on several other discs as both an organist and pianist. These include collaborations with the London Choral Sinfonia, and the Chapel Choirs of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and King’s College, London. Last year, he recorded a brand new organ concerto by Richard Pantcheff and was the pianist for a recording of Vaughan William’s strings and piano version of the Five Mystical Songs, with Roderick Williams as the soloist.
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