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The Feast of the Ascension at Westminster Abbey
Matins
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Cælos ascendit Hodie Op. 38, No 2 (1905) [2:03]
Bernard ROSE (1916-1996)
The Preces [1:12]
Sir Joseph BARNBY (1838 –1896)
Psalm 24 [2:46]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Festival Te Deum in E (1944) [6:11]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Der 100 Psalm (1619) [4:15]
Bernard ROSE
The Responses [5:54]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
O clap your hands [3:08]
Eucharist
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Missa Brevis (1965) [7:50]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
God is gone up (1951) [4:37]
Evensong
Peter PHILIPS (1560/1-1628)
Ascendit Deus [2:44]
Sir George MACFARREN (1813-1887)
Psalm 93 [1:47]

Sir William WALTON
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis ‘Chichester Service’ (1974) [6:16]

Patrick GOWERS (b. 1936)
Viri Galilaei [7:30]
Bernard ROSE
The Dismissal [0:21]
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
Toccata* [9:37]
Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
*Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. Westminster Abbey 18-19, 25-26 June 2007. DDD
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67680 [66:18]
Experience Classicsonline


Hyperion and the Westminster Abbey choir continue their series of albums built round major feasts in the Christian calendar. This is at least the third such release. Previously I reviewed their celebration of Trinity Sunday (CDA67557 - see review) and my colleague, Johan van Veen considered the album devoted to music for the feast of St. Edward the Confessor (CDA67586 - see review). Now the series is expanded with this collection of music for the various Anglican services for the feast of the Ascension.
 
Proceedings get off to the best possible start with Stanford’s fine anthem in which long, confident vocal lines are punctuated frequently with fanfare-like ejaculations of “Alleluia”. If Stanford may be allowed as an English composer, for he spent so much of his working life in the country, then almost the whole disc is devoted to English music. In this company Heinrich Schütz’s setting of Psalm 100, sung in German, sits rather uneasily, I think. However, the piece is a good one and it receives a spirited performance.
 
The Preces and Responses by Bernard Rose bespeak a lifetime’s understanding of Anglican liturgical music. Benjamin Britten was much less associated with this genre but his E major setting of the Te Deum – he also made a very good setting in C major – is a fine and imaginative work, full of atmosphere at the start and exciting from “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ” The piece is very well done here, with Robert Quinney contributing notably – not for the last time in the programme – at the organ console.
 
If Schütz’s music sits a little uncomfortably in this collection the same certainly can’t be said for Vaughan Williams. His O clap your hands, a splendidly affirmative piece, would make an uplifting conclusion to almost any celebratory service and so it proves here as the final element in the Matins section of the disc.
 
Walton’s Missa Brevis was described by the composer himself as “very brevis”, and indeed it is. Commissioned for Coventry Cathedral, it is over and done with in less than eight minutes in this performance. Yet its concision does not mean it is a negligible setting of the Mass. Walton, characteristically, says what he wants to say, no more, no less. The Agnus Dei is as beautiful as it is brief. The Gloria comes at the end and where the preceding three movements - Kyrie, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei – have been mainly subdued in tone the Gloria makes up in festivity and liveliness – though there are contemplative passages also. This is the only accompanied part of the Mass and Robert Quinney’s playing adds to the excellence of the performance.
 
Quinney is to the fore also in Finzi’s wonderful anthem, God is gone up. The opening organ fanfare, with arresting use of reeds, compels attention and, thus launched, the choir take things on with great conviction. It never ceases to amaze me that men such as Finzi and Vaughan Williams – to name but two – could produce such convincing church music though not conventional believers themselves.
 
Evensong begins with the introit Ascendit Deus by the Tudor composer, Peter Philips. James O’Donnell inspires his singers to deliver the exuberant polyphony with clarity and excitement. We’re in the hands of Walton again for the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’. His ‘Chichester Service’ is yet another composition which music lovers owe to the taste and prescience of that remarkable clergyman, Dr. Walter Hussey (1909-1985). He commissioned a whole series of important pieces of music – and other works of art – while vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton (1937-1955) and carried on this admirable practice as Dean of Chichester Cathedral (1955-1977). Walton’s compositional fingerprints are scattered liberally throughout this setting - Belshazzar’s Feast is evoked at “He hath shewed strength with his arm”, for example and the same work and the Te Deum come readily to mind during the doxology of the Magnificat. A bass solo opens the Nunc Dimittis, which is well described by James O’Donnell as having a “world-weary, Sarabande-like tread”. The contrast afforded by the scintillating doxology could not be greater.
 
 The inclusion of Patrick Gowers’ excellent anthem Viri Galilaei is greatly to be welcomed. Unlike Finzi’s anthem, which begins its celebration of the Ascension in a mood of bold confidence, Gowers begins his piece in awestruck quiet. Thus he brilliantly suggests the incomprehension and fear of the apostles. At “God is gone up with a merry noise” the mood becomes appropriately joyful, with dancing rhythms and the choir transformed into confident celebrants. Then, in a masterstroke, Gowers introduces the broad, majestic Ascension hymn, ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’. But the noble tune is underpinned by a propulsive, dancing organ part and exuberant choral decoration. The treatment is quite superb and most imaginative. A triumphant, loud conclusion would have been fine but Gowers has one more trick up his sleeve, briefly returning to quiet, mysterious music for his close. In so doing he reminds us that for believers the Ascension is indeed a great mystery as well as a cause for rejoicing. This brilliant piece is given a performance fully worthy of it.
 
The hypothetical Evensong congregation is invited to depart to the powerful strains of Francis Pott’s Toccata. According to the notes this dates from shortly after Pott’s huge organ symphony, Christus (1986-1990). Toccata is a substantial piece in its own right and is emphatically more than a mere display piece. Quite clearly it calls for a virtuoso organist and an organ with abundant tonal resources. Happily, in Robert Quinney and the Westminster Abbey organ we have just the team for the job and Pott’s piece makes for a thrilling conclusion.
 
I have one regret, namely that one of the splendid Ascensiontide hymns was not included. For example, there would have been room on the disc for a few verses of ‘Hail the day that sees Him rise’. However, that’s a very small cavil. Everything about this disc is first class. As I’ve indicated, the performances themselves are out of the top drawer and the music is varied and full of interest. The engineers have done a splendid job and excellent booklet notes set the seal on a release that easily earns a strong recommendation.
 
John Quinn
 


 


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