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An English Choral Tradition
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) God is gone up [4’55"]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Like as the hart [7’02"]; Magnificat (St. Paul’s) [6’49"]
Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995) In Exile [8’22"]
Donald HUNT (b. 1930) God be gracious [5’42"]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Nunc Dimittis [4’04"]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Lord Thou has been our refuge [8’05"]; Mass in G minor [ 24’23"]
Worcester Cathedral Choir/Donald Hunt
Adrian Partington (organ)
Rec. Worcester Cathedral, April 1990. DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4043 [70’24"]


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As I type this review the opening of the 2004 Three Choirs Festival on August 7 is exactly four weeks away. It’s a very appropriate time to review this CD because all the composers represented here had close associations with the Festival and Donald Hunt was, like Herbert Sumsion (whose pupil he was, as well as his assistant at Gloucester Cathedral between 1948 and 1954), heavily involved in the direction of the festivals during his period as Organist of Worcester Cathedral (1975-1996). As Dr. Hunt points out in his very useful notes, the composers were, in fact, especially linked with Gloucestershire and that’s also apposite since this year’s Festival will be held in my adopted home city of Gloucester.

These recordings were made some time ago and I believe they originally appeared on the Abbey Alpha label (CDCA 906). This reissue by Griffin is most welcome.

The performances here demonstrate the success of Donald Hunt in fashioning a fine and flexible choir at Worcester. The singers blend well and tuning and diction are admirable. The treble line has a nice cutting edge and the three lower parts fill out the textures admirably. The recording engineers have taken the decision to balance the choir reasonably close (but not too close) to the microphones and this works very well, I think. They’re present enough for clarity but not so close that there’s no ambience round the voices. Also the organ is very well caught but doesn’t drown the singers.

The music itself, of course, is in the blood of these singers and of Hunt himself (he was born in Gloucester.) As a result the performances all have the ring of conviction and authority. The Finzi anthem provides an arresting opening (though the more contemplative central section is evocatively done). Howells’ superb anthem, Like as the hart is equally successful. It’s a languid piece but one that has an inner strength. Its aching lyricism is sensitively conveyed by Hunt and his choir. They also do the splendid St. Paul’s Magnificat very well – but what a pity the companion Nunc Dimittis is excluded.

I was delighted that some music by Herbert Sumsion was included. His may not have been a major compositional voice but he wrote some excellent music for church choirs and, of course, he was a splendid servant of the Three Choirs Festival and of Gloucester cathedral during no less than 39 years as organist of that cathedral (1928-1967). The work included here was written for Donald Hunt himself in 1981. Dr. Hunt points out in his notes that this is a relatively rare example of Sumsion writing for unaccompanied voices. It’s a setting of the "By the waters of Babylon" text from Psalm 137. I felt the piece took a little while to get going and thematically it’s a bit limited but it’s undeniably atmospheric and effective.

Donald Hunt modestly says of his own God be gracious, which was published in 1987 that "the harmonic language is possibly not in keeping with the remainder of the works on offer [in the recital], but the composer is well aware of his musical roots." I’d certainly agree with the second part of that sentence. It is a more modern piece than the others recorded here but Hunt is very loyal to his roots and I don’t believe this piece is out of place here in any way. Indeed, it demonstrates an ability to build on and renew the established traditions which this CD celebrates. I hadn’t heard this anthem before but it strikes me as a fine one and it amply justifies its place here.

I’ll pass over the shorter works by Holst and Vaughan Williams, pausing only to say that both are very well done and both are well worth hearing. The Vaughan Williams Mass, however, is very well known and rightly so since it is surely one of the finest twentieth century a cappella choral works. Hunt aptly describes it as "the vocal counterpoint" of the Tallis Fantasia. He and his choir give it a very fine performance indeed. The (unnamed) soloists do very well, the treble especially, and the choir sing this timeless, very beautiful music extremely responsively. Hunt shapes and sculpts the music idiomatically and caringly but in such a way that one is never conscious of the shaping. In so doing he demonstrates his deep understanding not just of this piece but of the roots of English polyphony from which it sprang. All credit too to the engineers who have captured the acoustic of Worcester Cathedral excellently. As a result the acoustic of the building surrounds the music like an aura and enhances the music as RVW surely intended.

So, this is a very welcome reissue. There are a couple of minor production flaws. I noticed a few small typographical errors in the notes which better sub-editing should have picked up. Also, given that this disc essentially celebrates the choral tradition of the Three Choirs counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire I think the choice of a water colour of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament is a little unimaginative. No matter, these are minor blemishes that do not affect enjoyment of the disc itself. I enjoyed it very much and happily recommend it.

John Quinn



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