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