American Record Guide

James Cook is a young, Oxford-educated English composer who specializes in a cappella sacred music. This collection – his first – is a fine introduction to his interesting and imaginatively crafted music. The common thread binding these pieces is that, save for the odd Bible verse or extract from the Book of Common Prayer, most of them are settings of sacred writings by obscure Puritan authors from the 16th through 18th centuries. I won’t attempt to discuss them all here – or the booklet’s exhaustive but interesting (and gory!) mini-history of the sect. Suffice it to say that the texts are largely the sorts of severe, yet pious and heartfelt writing most of us would expect from Puritans. And the music matches.

Cook herewith joins the legion of up-and-coming English sacred choral writers that helps feed Britain’s massive choral establishment. His predominantly tonal idiom, while thoroughly modern, still smacks of the solemn antiquity of a bygone era’s unquestioning, straitlaced faith and morality.

There are two cycles of short pieces and various fragments from two others, totalling 19 separate settings. Vespers, the first cycle, includes lovely realizations of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23, plus a solemn but searing “mag-and-nunc” setting. The second complete set, Hymnus Divinus, includes no such familiar material, exploring instead the theme of the righteous soul’s heavenly transfiguration. The composer employs open intervals and extended octaves to achieve a particularly ethereal sense of timeless sacred mystery. The remaining selections are excerpted from works titled Triptych and Gradualia, Book I.

The composer’s unique voice is quite discernible from one piece to the next. His harmonic schemes are varied and striking, and he adroitly explores a wide array of forms and techniques. The chorale is a frequent model, and he writes with considerable canonic and contrapuntal skill. He achieves real beauty and profundity, while displaying a sure knack for musical illumination of texts. My only small gripe is that nearly an hour of unrelenting solemnity is a little hard to take. I kept hoping he would lighten up a little and give us a bit of rapturous joy or celebration. But the music is consistently worth hearing, and its potential for liturgical use everywhere is strong.

I’ve often wondered what happens in England to singers and conductors who prefer ripe and chesty choral sonorities, with plenty of vibrato. England must have its share of big-voiced singers who love choral music. You certainly don’t hear them in most English choirs. But this excellent professional chamber chorus is indeed a refuge for some of them. Their sound may well displease some English choral purists, but it will offer others (like me) a refreshing change. These are skilled, interpretively sensitive musicians who can bury us at will in massive, throaty sonorities, but they know how to subordinate their voices in the interest of pleasing choral ensemble. Their wide vibratos at top volume make for some minor blurring of pitches, though it is here a stylistic by-product rather than a technical flaw.

The album is well-recorded, and the composer’s own notes are lengthy, but interesting. Unless you must have the hooty-white purity of most English sacred singing, you’ll find this release highly worthwhile. I’m also sure well hear more from this composer.