Bernard Rose was for decades a leading figure in English church music as both a composer and choral conductor. Most famously he was Organist and Informator Choristum at Magdalen College, Oxford between 1957 and 1981. His roll-call of pupils includes many distinguished names such as Geoffrey Bush, Gordon Crosse, Patrick Gowers, Joseph Horovitz (who contributes a generous personal tribute to the booklet), Michael Hurd and Kenneth Leighton. He formed lasting friendships with many equally noteworthy musicians amongst whom were Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, Leopold Stokowski and Egon Wellesz. His distinguished career is described in a most interesting booklet note by his son, Gregory Rose.
Rose fils has followed in the footsteps of his father by becoming a celebrated composer and choral conductor in his own right. It’s fitting, therefore, that he should be the conductor of what I suspect may be the first CD devoted completely to his father’s music. Be in no doubt; this album is certainly not a mere act of filial piety. All the music included here – much of it in first recordings – is well worth hearing and the performances are uniformly excellent.
Much of the programme is devoted to sacred music but Rose’s secular output is also represented. I was very taken with Upon Westminster Bridge, a setting of Wordsworth’s celebrated lines, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’. This is a captivating piece and it put me in mind of Finzi’s part songs, not least in the lovely section that includes a tenor solo (‘Never did sun more beautifully sleep …’) If I could tell you, an Auden setting, is another quintessential English part-song. Gregory Rose points out echoes of Vaughan Williams and Holst but, for me, Finzi’s shadow also hovers in the background.
Bernard Rose was steeped in the English liturgical music tradition from an early age: he was a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral (1925-1931) where he also showed a precocious talent as an organist. Given this background and his long stint at Magdalen College it’s scarcely surprising that church music should have been so much a feature of his compositional output. Mention of Salisbury Cathedral leads me inevitably to Praise ye the Lord and the set of coincidences that are associated with the piece. It was dedicated to Douglas Guest on his appointment as Organist at the cathedral in 1950. Guest and Rose were born on the same day, studied together at Cambridge and died within three days of each other. The dedication of Praise ye the Lord is a wonderful mark of friendship. It’s for unaccompanied double choir and sets words from Psalm 149. The music is jubilant and rhythmically vital and the piece provides an excellent end to the programme.
Before that we hear two of Rose’s settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. The C minor set has organ accompaniment. The canticles written for Chichester Cathedral are a capella and, as Gregory Rose says, have “echoes” of Tudor music. That said, the music is firmly of the twentieth century. In these unaccompanied canticles Rose makes ingenious use of different divisions of his choral forces so that the textures are varied and interesting.
For the first piece on the programme, Feast Song for Saint Cecilia, Bernard Rose invited Gregory to write him a text. The piece features fine, flowing vocal lines and there’s a recurring and highly effective part for a solo soprano. I like very much the two Christmas pieces that Gregory Rose has selected. In particular The Christ Child, a setting of G.K. Chesterton is very beautiful and thoughtful, communicating very directly with the listener.
I enjoyed all the music on this disc. Bernard Rose is extremely well served here by the voices of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Occasionally you can tell by the pronunciation that the choir isn’t Anglophone but they sing Rose’s music extremely well and Gregory Rose’s direction is surely uniquely authoritative. Some of the music includes organ accompaniment which is played by Ene Salumäe. She also pays the short solo piece, Chime. I wouldn’t say that the organ in Tallinn’s Methodist church is the most compelling instrument I’ve ever heard but it’s perfectly serviceable. Both organ and choir are well recorded.
This is a fine tribute to an important figure in the music of the English church.