Edward Bairstow was a composer associated with English churches in the early part of the last century; he later taught at Durham University, where one of his students was Gerald Finzi. He has almost been forgotten, but this attractive disc by the Choir of St. John's College Cambridge under David Hill makes a case for his revival among lovers of Anglican church music. The nine selections here include a cappella, organ-accompanied, and orchestral music. Bairstow succeeds better in the smaller dimensions; although the Five Poems of the Spirit (1944) offer heartfelt responses to seventeenth century English religious poetry like Sir Walter Raleigh's marvelous "Purse and Scrip," Bairstow was not a terribly interesting orchestrator. Most attractive are the two Evening Services, in D major and G major, with organ. Bairstow integrates the heavily chromatic language of late Romantic organ music into his more modest setting, often setting dense organ lines in antiphony with lyrical choral lines setting the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis texts. In anthems like Lord, thou hast been our refuge (track 5), Bairstow shows himself something of a sacred song composer; his dramatic unpacking of familiar sacred texts, liberally punctuated with moments of silence, shows us something of what must have been transmitted from Bairstow the teacher to Finzi the student. The boy trebles of the choir do beautifully in the many passages of the unaccompanied anthems where Bairstow sets up spatial contrasts between high and low voices. In all, there is an appealing modesty and sensitivity to these settings that will recommend them even to audiences not enamored of the genre.
Bairstow: Choral Music Review
by James Manheim