Parish Playlists

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Parish Playlist #1

Daniel Collins (interim Director of Music, St. Barnabas with Christ's Chapel, and member of The Sixteen)

Here are my (slightly too many) choices for my Parish Playlist. I am a freelance international conductor and singer, currently living in Milton Keynes, and Director of Music at this wonderful church.

 

1. Bach - Mass in B Minor

It’s hard to pick just one piece by the extraordinary talent that is JS Bach. His writing is structural and mathematical perfection - each aria follows a distinct pattern in the way it is set out, each chorale is a perfectly formed commentary on the text, each fugue sticks firmly to the structure which Bach himself devised. And yet, somehow, the music is some of the most emotional, heart-wrenching, powerful music ever written. The Mass in B minor, although written initially as various cantata movements before being constructed into a full mass setting, can lay claim to being one of the finest works of art ever crafted. It is my favourite piece of music, and is a work I have had the privilege of performing many times. As an alto, I am lucky enough to get to sing the Agnus Dei, one of the most beautiful, but also pressured, arias Bach wrote. You’ve enjoyed nearly two hours worth of something close to musical perfection, and then you have to stand up and bring the house down, starting on a quiet top D. Last time I performed it I had the voice of one of my colleagues in my head, who before going on stage had helpfully said to me “Good luck! Now’s not the time to be average”. He bought me a drink afterwards. Have a listen firstly to the Netherlands Bach Society performing, in my opinion, the most exciting chorus of the work - Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Click here. And secondly, Iestyn Davies singing the Agnus Dei: Click here. 

 

2. Palestrina - Missa Papae Marcelli

Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is credited by some scholars with saving Renaissance polyphony. A bit of history: the church was, at the time, relatively unhappy with choral music in its services, saying it was a distraction to worship. Mass settings where the phrases were so long you forget which word you are singing were an issue, and masses based on secular and profane tunes (of which there were plenty) did not help matters. They would often take drinking songs - and songs about other topics the church were not happy with - as their inspiration. Palestrina took matters into his own hands and developed a style of writing which brought clarity and meaning to the text, and was not obviously based on any particular tune: a style which the church accepted and still inspires musicians to this day. Palestrina’s music is full of joy, of beauty, of reverence, and the subtleties in the way he responds to the text are poetry in music. Here is a recording of The Sixteen singing my favourite work of his - the Credo from the Missa Papae Marcelli. The cascading Amen (and the build-up to it) is, in my opinion, one of the finest pages of music ever written. Click here.

 

3. Henry Purcell - all of his music

Ok I’m cheating here, I simply can't ignore any of his music. What I love about Purcell's compositions is how human they feel: there’s no pretense to them, he simply bends harmony to fit his emotions, and to show what he feels about particular people. There’s no distinction between sacred and secular, he writes as himself at all times. I am always drawn to composers who wear their heart on their sleeve. Here are two pieces, the first (both the first two tracks) a recording of one of his Royal Welcome Songs by The Sixteen, with Mark Dobell as the soloist in the first track, and myself as the soloist in the second. The trio at the end of the first track is divine: Click here. Leading to Click here. And a beautiful aria from his Ode for Queen Mary’s Birthday, sung by Michael Chance: Click here.

 

4. William Harris - Faire is the Heaven

This piece, for me, has everything. The text (by Edmund Spencer) is one of hope, acceptance, joy, and beauty. Harris sets the text so expressively and subtly that it feels like you are reading the poem when singing it. The way he shifts keys and tempi when describing the different levels of angels and archangels - getting brighter and faster - is thrilling, until he magically returns to the original key of Db when the poem reaches God ("as to the Highest they approach more neare"). If I could only choose one piece of music to be the only piece I can listen to it would be this. The ending ("How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse the image of such endlesse perfectnesse?") gets me every time. Here is Tenebrae's interpretation of the piece: Click here.

 

5. Ralph Vaughan Williams - The House of Life

I hold English song very close to my heart. I find the delicacy and bittersweetness of the genre incredibly powerful. As much as I like vivid performances of music, there is something so moving about portraying love and loss in a more reserved way. It is a very British thing to hold back on showing emotion, and the parlour-song composers of the early 20th century were very much of that mindset. The House of Life is a six-song cycle by Vaughan Williams, a series of snapshots which explore the passing of time. My favourite song is Silent Noon, the second song in the cycle, which tells us of a fleeting yet perfect moment, a freeze-frame in time with a loved one. The song ends by telling us to cherish these moments while we can: “Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower, this close-companioned inarticulate hour when twofold silence was the song of love”. Here it is, sung by my favourite singer, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson. Click here.

 

6. Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

In my opinion, Tristan und Isolde is without doubt the greatest expression of love and longing in the history of music. Wagner himself talks about the opera as passing “from the most timid confession and tender attraction to anxious longing, hope and apprehension, plaints and desires, rapture and torment”. Musically, Wagner spins out what is known as the “eternal melody”, a phrase that never cadences, and even when you think it is about to, in the Act 2 duet, it is interrupted at the final moment. The story of Tristan is very similar to what we know as Romeo and Juliet, with one important difference: Wagner adds on a soliloquy for Isolde at the end (the Liebestod), finally allowing the two lovers to be with each other in another realm. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. The musical magic is that the very first phrase of the whole opera finally resolves itself, nearly five hours later, at the moment the two lovers are finally together. The oboe, the instrument which plays the very first phrase of the opera, holds on to the resolution of the "eternal melody" whilst everyone else pauses before the final chord. Five hours of waiting for that phrase to cadence is the definition of musical longing. Here is the Prelude and Liebestod (the first and last sections of the opera), performed by Donald Runnicles/Atlanta SO with Christine Brewer: Click here.

 

7. Mahler - Symphony no. 2 "Resurrection"

Speaking of composers who wear their heart on their sleeve...one could never accuse Mahler of being subtle. For much of his life he was preoccupied with his own mortality, and this comes out loud and clear in his music. He is capable of writing music of the highest beauty (his famous Adagietto from his 5th Symphony was an orchestral setting of a love poem he wrote to his wife, Alma), and of the most violent destruction. It is this emotional range which attracts me to his music. The Resurrection symphony showcases this in all its glory. The violent mood swings of the first movement (said to be depicting the funeral of the “hero” from his 1st Symphony - Mahler himself took the “hero” to be his own alter ego); the refined dance of the second movement, frequently interrupted by moments of bubbling tension; the mix of pastoral and grotesque of the 3rd movement (one such pastoral moment is interrupted by no less than a Primal Scream of Death); the hope and beauty of Urlicht as the 4th movement, leading to a titanic struggle between life and death in the 5th. Epic, and definitely at the top of my conducting bucket-list. Here is the 4th movement, sung by Anna Larson, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Click here. Whole symphony here: Click here.

 

8. Paul Simon - Graceland

And now for something completely different: the album I grew up listening to. My Dad is a huge Paul Simon fan (my Dad is also the best guitarist I’ve ever heard - back in the day he turned down the chance to play for a band due to his teaching career picking up. That band, so the story goes, went on to become Pink Floyd): he bought me the album when I was 10 or so. I went to see him in the summer of 2018 in Hyde Park for his farewell tour, and I’m so glad I went. A musical genius. Graceland has some cracking songs on it - You can call me Al; Diamonds on the soles of her shoes; Under African skies; Graceland. Simon’s rhythmic writing is electric, with his off-beat syncopations, fantastic bass riffs and complex rhythm guitar work. You can hear the strong African feel throughout the album, the influence of his close friend and colleague, the South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo. Simon’s own vocal writing is uniquely brilliant, with his liberal use of speech rhythm: I don’t think he sings on the beat at all in Diamonds on the soles of her shoes!! Here is Graceland, from the concert I went to in Hyde Park! Click here.

 

9. Earth, Wind and Fire - Fantasy

Pure funk energy. I have sung this with a live band on a few occasions. Much like Paul Simon, the rhythmic energy you get from this song is mind-blowing. I’m drawn to music from the 70s and the 80s: they certainly knew how to write a tune! I could have gone with the Bee Gees or The Eagles for this final entry, but very little gets my heart-rate going like Fantasy. It has the glitz and glamour of 70s disco music combined with heavy jazz influences, African influences (they used a unique instrument called a Kalimba, a modern version of a Lamellophone - Click here.), and a bucket-load of rhythmic kick. The quality of individual musicianship and vocal performance is of the highest level, too. I just watched a video of them performing it on Morning TV: Maurice White hits a Queen of the Night top F. That guy could sing. Here’s their official music video: Click here.

 

Bonus tracks:

Because I couldn’t leave them out: Elgar - Symphony no. 1 (BBC SO/Brabbins) Click here. JS Bach - Erbarme Dich (Netherlands Bach Society/Tim Mead) Click here.

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