Album Review: ‘Choral Music’

Intelligent and imaginative, the choral works of contemporary composer Richard Allain
May 9, 2019 Updated: May 9, 2019

I first came across Richard Allain’s music at one of Alistair Dixon’s “New Lamps for Old” concerts with his ensemble Chapelle du Roi. For these, contemporary composers were paired with a pre-existing Renaissance or Tudor polyphonic piece and asked to write a setting of the same text. Richard and I were on the same program, along with a variety of other composers.

A disc on the Delphian label, released in September 2018, “Choral Music” is devoted to Richard Allain‘s elegant and well-made contemporary choral music performed by the choir of Merton College, Oxford, and conducted by Benjamin Nicholas.

It is, by and large, a disc of smaller-scale pieces. The longest work on the disc, “Videte Miraculum,” revisits the “New Lamps for Old” concept. Commissioned by Suzi Digby and her ORA singers, it is a response to Thomas Tallis’s responsory “Videte Miraculum,” and Allain uses Tallis as a “cantus firmus,” surrounding it with a series of gorgeous polyphonic textures.

This work gives a true sense of Allain as a composer whose roots are in the past yet who creates his own sound-world. In “Videte Miraculum,” we are aware of Thomas Tallis, but Allain makes his music undulate around Tallis, and it is not just richly gorgeous—there are thoughtful moments too.

The other substantial works on the disc are the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from the service for the Norwich Cathedral that Allain wrote. The twinkling organ and bright, clear women’s voices of these pieces are striking indeed.

As ever with discs like this, I wish we had more substantial works on the disc. As it is, there are perhaps slightly too many well-made occasional pieces, though it has to be admitted that Allain’s wedding anthem “Cana’s Guest” is one of his most performed pieces.

Choral Music by Richard Allain_
“Choral Music” by Richard Allain. (Delphian)

In style, Allain can sometimes veer toward that of the English composer John Rutter, and I have no doubt that his music must make singers very grateful.

He is the master of lovely textures and luscious chords, as in “If Music Be the Food of Love” or the opening of “The Beloved.” The latter illustrates another apparent Allain trait: the gradual buildup from quiet to climax. “O Day-Spring” fits into this mold, but it is notable for its use of a saxophone solo (Finn McEwen) over the top of the choral music.

English composer Joanna Wyld’s program note tells us plenty about the music, but the disc has little biography about the composer himself. More importantly, we learn neither why this composer nor why these particular pieces were chosen for the album. I would have been glad of an introductory note from conductor Benjamin Nicholas setting things in context.

From this disc, it seems that Richard Allain is that rare thing: a useful composer—one able to write approachable music that doesn’t scare the audience, patrons, or sponsors, yet music that is intelligent, imaginative, full of personality, and arouses gratefulness in those who sing it.

I know that in listening to the music on this disc, I would be delighted to be singing his music, and I suspect many people will feel the same.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, slightly edited for clarity, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.