GMCD 7236 – Lincoln Windows – Music by Philip Wilby

The Choir of Lincoln College Oxford, Tom Lydon – Conductor, Philip Smith – Organ

To the CD in our Shop

Classics Today Thursday January 02 03

English composer Philip Wilby (b. 1949) writes in a many-faceted style that snatches bits from Howells, Britten, and others of the early-ish to mid-20th-century who practiced a manner of choral writing based on natural English-language rhythms and harmonic structures that are decidedly tonal but judiciously spiced with the flavors of atonality. He’s managed to cobble harmonic and melodic structures that are both appealingly accessible and practical. His Lincoln Windows is a seven-part work based on the scenes depicted in the “large-scale painted window” in Oxford University’s Lincoln Chapel. The scenes, juxtaposing Old Testament events with their New Testament counterparts–Christ’s nativity and Adam’s creation; the Last Supper and the rite of the Passover; Christ’s ascension and the ascension of Elijah, and so forth–are portrayed with choral expositions and spoken narration of both Biblical texts and those drawn from the writings or sermons of three 17th-century religious figures, namely Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, and Jeremy Taylor. As performed by the outstanding Choir of Lincoln College and organist Philip Smith, this substantial (22-minute) cycle shows the work of a thoughtful and highly skilled composer who knows not only England’s vast and revered choral tradition but also how to make choral church music come alive today. There’s drama, sumptuous vocal writing, and a fine integration of the various components of speech, ensemble singing, and organ.

Although the three organ solo pieces are based on well-known Anglican hymn tunes, even if you’re familiar with the originals you won’t recognize them in these highly abstract, “atmospheric” recastings. However, you’ll find yourself on firmer ground with the charming Goldfinch Carol (recalling the medieval legend of this bird’s ominous appearance at Christ’s birth), the richly beautiful harmonies of Sonnet (its text from Mark Jarman’s collection of Unholy Sonnets), and the pleasingly, comfortably new setting of Isaac Watts’ beloved hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”. The sound, captured not in the Lincoln Chapel but rather at Oxford’s Exeter College (taking advantage of that venue’s excellent organ and ideal acoustics) is full-bodied yet detailed, clear, and vibrant. Not only does this release give due attention to a worthy contemporary composer, but it also makes me want to immediately hear this choir’s other recordings–O Magnum Mysterium, Good Friday, Peace in our Time, and Magnificat (all on Guild).
David Vernier