Reviews of “In the Spirit’s Tether: Choral and Instrumental Music of Harold Friedell”

The following review by Michael Barone appeared in the September 2000 issue of The American Organist:

IN THE SPIRIT’S TETHER: Choral and Instrumental Music by Harold Friedell (1905-1958).  The Choir of St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond; Neal Campbell, organist and choirmaster; Deborah Cuffee Davis, assistant organist (1951/66 Aeolian-Skinner), with Robert Murray, violin, and Melba Williams, Harp.  Pro Organo CD-7096 [DDD]; 67:47.  Produced by Frederick Hohman (available from Zarex Corporation: 800-336-2224; www.zarex.com.  [Anthems: Psalm 25; Draw us in the spirit’s tether; The Way to Jerusalem; Thou Son of God on Christmas Day; The shepherds had an angel; Sweet little Jesu; Modal Communion Service; Orisons; Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F; Psalm 121; Organ solos: Lullaby; Prelude on St. Columba; Elegy (with violin and harp).]

Respected and appreciated for his dozen years of service to New York City’s St. Bartholomew’s Church and as an inspiring faculty member of the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seiminary, Friedell was one of the notable East Coast American church musicians of the mid-10th century.  Active in the AGO and maintainer of exemplary programs at the churches he served, Friedell left a small body of useful compositions that reveal a sure hand and a full understanding of the needs of the liturgical church.  Texts are set clearly and without complication, harmonies and melodies are chaste and effecient, yet also confident and reassuring, and everything is accessible to Sunday singers and worshipers.  Though many of the works have been published, two items, which were not, should be: a brief organ Lullaby, with its aura of Delius’s Walk in the Paradise Garden, and the moving soprano solo setting of Psalm 121.  The Mag/Nunc pair is as fine as any by an American, and the plaintive Elegy touches heartstrings, too.  Campbell’s forces are period perfect, and Hohman’s recording of them is spacious, transparent, and totally effective.  No anthem texts are provided in the otherwise informative booklet (and are not really necessary, so clear is the choir’s diction). No useful data is provided about the organ either, this omission being one of Pro Organo’s few recurring bad habits.

This second review, also by Michael Barone, appeared in the July 2001 issue of The American Organist in a column celebrating the 15th anniversary of Frederick Hohman’s Pro Organo label where Barone reviewed a dozen recent Pro Organ releases:

In church music circles, Friedell’s reputation still stands, based on his teachng at Union Theological Seiminar and his years at St. Bartholomew’s and Calvary Church in New York City.  Since his compositions are almost entirely for the church, awareness of his work beyond these precincts is virtually nil.  Thus, Neal Campbell’s dedicated performances (amplified by five booklet pages of his reflective annotations, drawn from his doctoral researches) are both welcome and necessary, at the very least as a document of an aspect of our culture (the serious church musician/composer) that is very much on the decline.  Friedell’s style is harmonically uncomplicated, mildly modal and lyric, easy to follow, and a bit proper as much utilitarian church music is (from any generation).  Little of his music is memorable in the way a Howells or Britten or Walton anthem might be, but that may come from an intent to create works that a totally amateur choir could manage.  These performances present the scores in a natural environment.  The marvelously clean enunciation of anthem texts seems to have been achieved, in part, by a microphone placement that emphasized individual voices (whose diction is flawless) rather than a more blended choral sound.  The chorus responds to Campbell’s sensitive direction, and if their ensemble is not as refined as some professional groups (vibrato in the female singers is rich), it still represents a quality level very high on the scale of American volunteer liturgical choirs.  All of the music is well within the scope of decent singers.  The solo Lullaby (which builds to a modest climax), and the haunting Elegy (in which guest violinist Robert Murray and harpist Melba Williams join Mr. Campbell) would all make satisfying recital interludes.  But in what has become an unfortunate Pro Organo tradition when the organ is not the sole focus of attention, little or no mention is made of it in booklet notes.  Here, even the organ tuning is credited (justifiably, since the instrument sounds superb), but we are told neither the date of completition, nor size, nor any historical background concerning the instrument.  I obtained the data elsewhere.

The following review by Bernard Durman appeared in the April 2000 issue of The Diapason:

This CD is likely to be viewed as the odd-lot recording from Pro Organo, because it features a choir that does NOT model itself after a typical English cathedral choir.  Instead, we have a mature, American mixed adult choir, with a rich, come-as-you-are vibrato.  The CD features the St. Stephen’s Choir, a choir not unlike that found in the majority of choir lofts in America, and one which approximates the choral blend and choral sound that one would have been likely to hear (and which this reviewer is old enough to remember) coming from the larger New York City area churches during the early 1960s.  Oddly enough, it is precisely this choral sound that does much to convey the warmth and quasi-operatic drama of the music of Harold Friedell.  Dr. Neal Campbell’s dissertation was centered upon the life and works of Friedell, and he draws upon his experience as he interprets and conducts these works.  Friedell was noted for his work in several New York City churches, his last and most memorable post being at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue.

For the program of this disc, Dr. Campbell has included an engaging instrumental track–the lush Elegy for violin, harp, and organ–as well as a couple of organ solo tracks and one very impressive soprano solo from Lisa Edwards-burrs (a setting of Psalm 121).  To this he has added some fine choral singing of service music, and both well-known and little-known Friedell anthems.  As one continues to listen to this album, one can begin to identify many of the harmonic progressions, modal flavors, and rhythms that are Friedell’s musical thumbprints.  For those of us who only know Harold Friedell from his “hit” anthems, such as Draw us in the spirit’s tether and The Way to Jerusalem, this CD will give the listener a finer understanding of this mid-century church musician/composer.  While the choral ensemble and diction are in fine form, and the recorded sound excellent, we are still miles removed from the sound of the Anglican cathedral men and boys choirs.  The value of the CD for the church musician is primarily for the opportunity of gaining insight into the dramatics, even the theatrics, of Harold Friedell’s sacred music.  The dramatic element must be understood by all who would conduct this music in order that it be delivered with the spirit of dignity and serenity that no musical score alone can convey.

The Choir of St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.

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