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Immortal Fire – Music for Female Saints
Herbert HOWELLS (1892–1983)
A Hymn for St. Cecilia; Salve Regina
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Margaret, Forsaken (2004)
Flor PEETERS (1903–1986)
Toccata, Fugue and Hymn on Ave Maris Stella, Op. 28

Hildegard of BINGEN (1098–1179)
Studium divinitas
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902– 1986)
Tota pulchra es Maria
Hildegard of BINGEN (1098–1179)
De Patria etiam earum
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)
A Hymn to the Virgin
Hildegard of BINGEN (1098–1179)
Deus enim in prima muliere praesignavit
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)

Hymn to St. Cecilia Op. 27

Marcel DUPRÉ (1886–1971)
Magnificat Op. 18
Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Ave Maria
Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
Ave Maria, Op. 2 No. 2
Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Ave maris stella
Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Winchester Cathedral/Sarah Baldock
Andrew Lumsden (organ)
Recorded Winchester Cathedral, January 2005
GRIFFIN GCCD 4049 [74.27]


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The choir of Girl Choristers was formed at Winchester Cathedral in 1999; the girls sing one service a week during term time. On this disc the Girl Choristers are joined by the male Lay Clerks in a programme of 20th century motets inspired by the Virgin, St. Cecilia, St. Ursula and St. Margaret of Scotland. The programme is well chosen. Not only does it mix an attractive variety of composers but many of the items are not typically associated with the Cathedral liturgical repertoire; something of a consideration when there are still heated discussions about the merits of girls choirs in Cathedrals.

From my own point of view, the principal concern is one of musicality and style. On both these counts, the girls most definitely score. Whilst having a slightly different timbre to the boys’ voices, they sing with great musicality and are recognisably English Cathedral in style.

The disc opens with a pair of contrasting motets by Herbert Howells. The first, A Hymn for St. Cecilia starts with the organ accompanying the choir in one of his typical broad-breathed melodies. Subsequent verses develop this melody and the result is an attractive example of his late style. This could not be more of a contrast with the early Salve Regina, written just after he left the Royal College of Music it was commissioned by R.R. Terry for Westminster Cathedral choir. An  unaccompanied setting of the Latin words, it’s a richly intense work and receives a fine shapely performance from the choir with a lovely solo from Tempe Nell at the end.

Judith Bingham’s Margaret, Forsaken sets a poem by Martin Shaw, Bishop of Argyll which focuses on St. Margaret of Scotland’s sense of isolation and exile. The work was commissioned by the Winchester chapter especially for this recording. Bingham sets the work for two soprano parts and organ. Using her familiar, rather edgy tonality she creates a haunting atmosphere, reminiscent of Poulenc. The girls give a fine performance but do not make anything like enough of the words.

Organist Andrew Lumsden gets to show his paces properly in the next item, an organ solo by Flor Peeters based on the plainsong Ave Maris Stella.

It probably seemed a good idea to link the disparate sections of the programme by including three Matins Antiphons for St. Ursula by Hildegard of Bingen. These are sung plain and unadorned, rather than with drone accompaniments. Unfortunately all three antiphons sound uncomfortably hurried; this might be more an issue of style than speed, though undoubtedly a slower speed would have helped. As it is one feels the lack of space in the performance.

Maurice Duruflé’s Quatre Motets were written six years before his well known Requiem. All the motets use Gregorian chant themes and Tota Pulchra Es is written for high voices only and sets words for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Winchester performance is charming, with the male altos blending well with the female trebles. But I felt that the piece needs more than charm and something of a smell of incense and sense of Catholic intensity is missing.

Britten was only 16 when he produced his astonishing A Hymn to the Virgin. It is written for choir and solo quartet. Setting a 14th century poem which mixes English and Latin, Britten gives the Latin words to the solo quartet as an echo chorus. The main choir give a beautifully shaped account of the work, but the solo quartet are placed far too distant for Britten’s echoes to tell, which is a great shame.

Britten was born on St. Cecilia’s Day and his Hymn to St. Cecilia sets words by his friend W.H. Auden. The choir gives a very accomplished account of the work, though the faster sections could have done with a touch more precision and incisiveness. Again the words are rather underplayed and Auden’s words are a very important part of this piece. Also the girls’ rather soft-grained voices left me wishing for a top line which had a little more edge to it; this is a very personal preference and others may disagree.

Marcel Dupré’s Magnificat neatly brings together various strands of the recital. The work is based on Dupré’s own organ improvisations on the plainsong. For the written down work Dupré alternates the unaccompanied plainchant with long organ meditations on the chant. As such it is hardly a choral piece at all, though the girls sing the chant neatly enough. Organist Andrew Lumsden captures the atmosphere and timbre of the organ meditations beautifully.

Gustav Holst’s relatively early Ave Maria was written in 1900 in memory of his mother. Scored for two choirs each of four upper voices, the work owes something to Holst’s teacher Parry and glories in the sheer beauty of the cascading lines of voices. It is a work which only hints at the later, more austere Holst. The choir revels in Holst’s rich textures and gives a performance of great beauty, only marred by a couple of places where the lower voices are out of balance.

Elgar’s Ave Maria was, like his Ave Verum, written for his father’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. It is an accomplished piece for a teenager and Elgar was proud enough of both pieces to re-issue them in later life. The final item in the recital is Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella; a deceptively simple work which responds well to the emotional nature of the words. It receives a fine performance from the choir, making a lovely conclusion to a very fine recital.

Robert Hugill




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