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The Feast of St Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey
[Matins]
plainsong

Laudes Regiae [04:08]
William SMITH (1603-1645)

The Preces [01:01]
William CROTCH (1775-1847)

Psalm 132 [04:28]
Charles STANFORD (1852-1924)

Te Deum (from Service in C, Op. 115) [08:03]
Benedictus (from Service in C, Op. 115) [05:35]
William SMITH and Robert STONE (1516-1613)

The Responses [05:41]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)

O God, thou art my God (Z 35) [03:52]
[Eucharist]
Jonathan HARVEY (b1939)

Missa bravis [10:52]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Os iusti meditabitur [04:39]
[Evensong]
William MORLEY (d1721)

Psalm 99 [02:31]
Henry PURCELL

Magnificat (from Evening Service in g minor, Z 231) [03:28]
Nunc dimittis (from Evening Service in g minor, Z 231) [03:03]
Philip MOORE (b1943)

The King and the Robin [09:37]
Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-1968)

Te Deum, Op. 11 [08:51]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O'Donnell
Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. February 2006, Westminster Abbey, London, UK. DDD
HYPERION CDA67586 [75:57]


 

Many people all over the world know Westminster Abbey, even if they have never set foot on British soil. During centuries many state occasions, royal weddings, funeral services and coronations have taken place there, and in the television era many millions of people have been able to see the Abbey on their screens. One of the key figures in the history of the Abbey was King Edward, who ascended the throne in 1042, after being in exile in Normandy since 1013 with Britain under Danish rule. He died in 1066, which caused a conflict over the succession. The battle of Hastings in that same year resulted in the Norman conquest of Britain.

It is thought a monastic community was founded at the site of the present Abbey in about 959. It was Edward who built a new Abbey church around the middle of the 11th century. The Abbey as it is now was built in Gothic style by Henry III. Since then the status of the Abbey was enhanced, which was also reflected in the musical practice. Polyphony and organ music were introduced, and a professional musician was appointed to direct the singers of the church.

The remains of King Edward are enshrined in Westminster Abbey and as he is the Abbey's patron he is commemorated every year. "This disc contains music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on the Feast of the Translation of Edward, King and Confessor, which falls on 13 October. Naturally the Abbey accords this festival particular significance and observes it with great solemnity, including special prayers and devotions at the Saint's shrine. The disc follows the structure of the three major choral services of a great feast day, all of which have their roots in the monastic Offices that took place in the Abbey since its original foundation", writes James O'Donnell in the booklet. So we find here music for the Matins (Morning Prayer), Eucharist (Mass) and Evensong (Evening Prayer).

Regular listeners to Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 will recognize the characteristic aspects of choral services which are common in the Church of England. For instance, the Preces, with the text: "O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise", and the Responses, including The Lord's Prayer. And then there are the Services, with Te Deum and Benedictus, or Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Conductors can draw from a vast treasury of settings of these texts, and here we hear music by two of the most popular composers of liturgical music, Henry Purcell and Sir Charles Stanford.

Britain is one of the rare countries where modern composers write music for liturgical use. The main reason is that cathedral and college choirs regularly commission new works from them, often for specific occasions. Two of these are included here: Jonathan Harvey composed his Missa brevis at the demand of the Abbey's Dean and Chapter in 1995. The other was written by Philip Moore, director of music at York Minster, in 2005 for the millennium celebrations for St Edward. The text of this anthem, The King and the Robin, was written by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. The disc concludes with an organ piece by Jeanne Demessieux, one of the most famous organ virtuosos of her time. It is written for the French symphonic organ of the 19th century, and pieces like this fare very well on English cathedral organs, which are stylistically very much alike the French symphonic organ.

This disc not only gives a good idea of what a service in a British cathedral is like, the choir of Westminster Abbey also belongs to the best in the United Kingdom, as this disc shows. The liturgical pieces - the Preces and the Responses - and the Psalm settings are very well sung, as are the compositions by Stanford, Harvey and Moore. In Moore's anthem the solo parts are given excellent performances by the baritone Julian Empett and the treble Benjamin Gerrans. The light, somewhat vulnerable voice of Master Gerrans suits the role of the robin very well.

But it is in particular in the compositions by Purcell that the typical sound of the Westminster Abbey's trebles is unsatisfying. Purcell's vocal parts are influenced by the Italian style, and require a more declamatory performance than they receive here. The solo sections in particular should be more sharply articulated, and there should be greater differentiation between the notes, for example in dynamics. This asks for stronger voices, more experienced in singing solo parts. Exemplary in this repertoire is the complete recording of Purcell's sacred music by Robert King - also on Hyperion.

These critical remarks notwithstanding I wholeheartedly recommend this disc to anyone interested in English liturgical music, even those who - such as I - are not very keen on contemporary music. Another interesting feature of this disc is the performance of music by little known composers like Robert Stone - his setting of the Lord's Prayer is very nice in its simplicity - and William Morley. All lyrics are included, and James O'Donnell's programme notes are very informative and well written.

Johan van Veen

 


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