musica Dei donum

CD reviews

William CROFT (1678 - 1727): "William Croft at St Paul's"

The Choir of St Paul's Cathedral; The Parley of Instruments
Dir: John Scott

rec: Feb Y May 1992, London, St Paul's Cathedral
Hyperion/Helios - CDH55252 (R) (© 1993/2005) (71'33")
Texts included

Burial Service; Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous, verse anthem; Service in D

William Croft is one of the lesser-known composers of the English baroque. The worklist in New Grove shows that he composed a considerable number of anthems; very few of them have ever been recorded, though. Croft had the bad luck of being 'sandwiched' between Henry Purcell, whose influence lasted long after his death in 1695, and George Frideric Handel, the German-born immigrant from Italy, who took England by storm. He soon attracted the interest of the royal family and was assigned to write music for state and royal occasions instead of English-born composers.

Croft started his career as chorister in the Chapel Royal under John Blow. In 1700 he became organist in St Anne's Church in Soho and entered the Chapel Royal again, as Gentleman Extraordinary. After the death of Francis Piggott he and Jeremiah Clarke shared his post as organist. When Clarke died in 1707 Croft became the only organist. As a composer he took over some duties from Blow and wrote several pieces for state occasions. When Blow died in 1708 he succeeded him as composer, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and organist at Westminster Abbey. In 1713 he received a degree in music in Oxford. It was from around 1715 that Handel gradually took over the burden of writing the music for royal and state ceremonies.

A large part of Croft's oeuvre is collected in two volumes, published in 1724 under the title Musica Sacra. Although he was strongly influenced by Purcell in his sacred music he also evinces a distinctive musical personality. Both in the Service in D and the anthem Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous the solo passages are more independent and less integrated into the whole of the composition. The Service in D also includes verses for two, three or four solo voices. Croft sometimes gives the instruments a more prominent role. 'O Lord, save thy people', from the Te Deum (Service in D), for instance, has a solo part for the oboe. These features are considered to be signs of Croft embracing the style of the late baroque as developed on the continent.

It is a little strange that on this disc the Service in D is split into two: it opens with the Te Deum and closes with the Jubilate, with the anthem and the Burial Service in between. The latter piece had been most appropriate to close the disc, as it is a highly expressive and moving work. It starts with a compilation of four Biblical texts: 'I am the resurrection and the life' (John 11), 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' (Job 19), 'We brought nothing into this world' (1 Timothy 6) and 'The Lord hath taken' (Job 1). Then follow three texts Purcell also used in his Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary: 'Man that is born of a woman', 'In the midst of life we are in death', and 'Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts'. For the latter text Croft included Purcell's full setting (Z 58c), simply because he thought that he would not be able to better Purcellís setting of the words. There is no notable change in style here: both Croft's and Purcell's pieces are homophonic and strongly declamatory in character. The Burial Service ends with a setting of Revelations 14, v13: 'I heard a voice from heaven'. The conclusion is an extended polyphonic setting of 'Amen'.

The expression and emotional character of the Burial Service is very impressively communicated by the choir, which sings the text with great care and high intensity. Croft's composition isn't any less moving than Purcell's, and shows that he is a composer of great skills who deserves more attention than he has received so far. The other works on this disc are also of high quality, and well performed by choir, orchestra and soloists. I wonder, though, would not have been better allocated to a high tenor; they are rather low for male altos.

I can imagine the listener needing some time to get used to the acoustical circumstances of this recording. St Paul's Cathedral has a very large reverberation, which sometimes makes it difficult to keep the text audible and the articulation clear. When I started to listen I had the impression there had been too much distance between the microphones and the performers, but it seems it is all a matter of getting used to it. It certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment, and I am sure it won't yours either.

To sum up: this reissue is most welcome as very little of Croft's music is available on disc and his music is definitely worth listening to. And the Burial Service alone is enough to make this disc recommendable.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Choir of St Paul's Cathedral
The Parley of Instruments

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