Holy Trinity Church, London
Word has already got out that is among the most original composers "to have emerged", as music publishers often hopefully proclaim, in recent years. To her admirers she has always been original, ever since her Missa Sancte Endeliente surprised them in 1980 with its bold confident tone, demanding attention. Even so, it's been only in the last decade that people have sat-up and admired the full-blooded humanity of her work - and the nature of her success, achieved through her involvement with the standard chamber and orchestral ensembles that are the backbone of musical life in this country.
One aspect of Burrell's art that even her admirers may know less well, however, is her oeuvre of liturgical and sacred pieces. These arise from her own religious faith and her participation in the worship of her local church in London's East End. It's a faith, unlike John Tavener's, that does not proclaim itself to millions. Instead, with quiet determination, Burrell provides the music that is needed, and does so without compromising her own manner. There's no doubt about its challenge, as the Allegri Singers found at Sloane Street's Holy Trinity church on Saturday, at a 50th-birthday concert in her honour. The end, however, justifies the means. The result is sacred music of the highest quality, inspiring both awe and penitence, quiet in parts yet finally uplifting to those who hear and sing it.
Though small-scale, the two Blessings with which the Allegri Singers began their recital were typical of the style as a whole. Choral writing in octaves was carefully blended with chordal passages. Despite the large acoustic of Holy Trinity, word-setting was both audible and refined, the music "getting inside" the meaning of the words. For the next piece, Creator of the Stars of Night, a slightly larger choral ensemble might have been more fitting. Nonetheless, the effect of solo cor anglais and obbligato organ pedals, rolling like distant thunder around the resonant nave, was striking. The ending, a peal of bells transcribed for voices singing the Amen, was the first of several endings that impressed by their freshness, and their sense that Burrell is a composer who seems incapable of self- repetition.
For an anthem based on another traditional hymn Come, Holy Ghost, our Souls inspire, Burrell employed the full organs which entered triumphantly half-way through in a blaze of trumpet-like sonority. Here was the harsher, more rhetorical side of her sacred style, a quality shared with the recent Benedicam Dominum and with Heil'ger Geist in's Himmels Throne, a festive anthem for chorus, organ and percussion written in 1993 for St Matthew's Northampton, where Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb was first performed fifty years earlier.
Most memorable of all, however, was the premiere of an Ave Verum Corpus, commissioned for the occasion, and finely sung by the Allegri Singers, conducted by Michael Nicholas. Rich choral harmonies were carefully blended by the performers. From a melting opening, the music moved to a quietly ecstatic close, reached with a sense of inevitability that remains a defining quality of Burrell's music as a whole.