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Christmas Vespers at Westminster Cathedral
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562–1621) Gaude et Laetare
Plainchant Deus in adjutorium; Psalm 109; Psalm 110; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; Psalm 116; Apparuit benignitasResponsorium breve; Christe redemptor omnium; Crastina die
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505–1585) Magnificat a 5
Plainchant Tonus Orationis
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548–1611) Alma redemptoris mater a 5
Plainchant Post partum; Elogium
Heinrich SCHUTZ (1585–1672) Hodie Christus Natus Est
Jean LANGLAIS (1907–1991) Fete
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker (Master of Music)
Matthew Martin (organ)
rec. Westminster Cathedral, 21, 22, 28 February, 1 March 2005
HYPERION CDA67522 [68.12]
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It was St. Benedict who organised the monastic day into seven services (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers) to facilitate the regular recitation of the Psalms and reading from the scriptures. These, together with the night office of Compline, formed the backbone of monastic establishments.
In non-monastic establishments Vespers has survived as a popular evening service. Its basic structure combines five psalms and a canticle and over the years the service has become a focus for composers to provide elaborate music. But plainchant remains an important thread running through the service and on this new disc from Westminster Cathedral the service is presented, not as some sort of historical reconstruction, but as it might be performed in the Cathedral on a major occasion at Christmas-tide.
Whilst the Psalms remain constant throughout the year, the introductory sentences and antiphons to each of the Psalms and to the Canticle are changed at each service. The service on this disc is thus the First Vespers of Christmas, the vespers that would be heard on the eve of Christmas.
The disc opens with Sweelinck’s stirring five-voice motet Gaude et laetare. Westminster Cathedral Choir is on fine form and this makes a wonderful start to the disc. It is followed by an extended sequence of plainchant and organ improvisations.
Following the introductory sentence, Deus in adjutorium meum intende, the five vespers Psalms are performed in sequence; each is preceded and followed by its own antiphon, the repeat of the antiphon being followed by an organ improvisation. The choir perform the chant in their traditional manner, which means that boys as well as men sing with a discreet organ accompaniment.
This is not strictly how I like listening to chant; I generally prefer it unaccompanied, but Westminster Cathedral’s command of the genre is so masterly that I succumb to their charms. The choir sings this chant at services regularly and it shows; everything here feels natural and expressive and their diction is exemplary
The organ improvisations, played by Matthew Martin, provide fascinating punctuation points and in the service must give a lovely pause for meditation and contemplation, especially if, as here, the organist provides a commentary on the material which has been heard and which is going to be heard.
This sequence is followed by the hymn, Christe redemptor omnium, given in a setting by Matthew Martin based on the plainchant.
The canticle, the Magnificat, is preceded and followed by its own antiphon. The Magnificat itself if sung in a lovely five-part setting by Thomas Tallis. Tallis’s music can be difficult to date, the Latin text suggests the work was written for Henry or Mary.
The Marian antiphon is that for the Christmas season, Alma redemptoris mater, sung in a five-part setting by Victoria, one that is richly coloured and spaciously grand, very apt for the season. The disc reaches a joyful conclusion with Schutz’s Hodie Christus Natus est. Fete by Langlais provides a brilliant concluding voluntary.
This is not a disc for those who are expecting a brilliant display of polyphony. The polyphonic works are beautifully sung, but they are embedded in well-modulated plainchant and it is this that provides the attraction for this disc. To get the benefit from these performances requires quiet and contemplation.
Here Westminster Cathedral Choir and Martin Baker give us a rich evocation of the complete service of Vespers at the Cathedral as it is currently sung. If you close your eyes you can almost smell the incense.
Robert Hugill


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