It was St. Benedict who organised the monastic day into
seven services (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and
Vespers) to facilitate the regular recitation of the Psalms
and reading from the scriptures. These, together with the
night office of Compline, formed the backbone of monastic
In non-monastic establishments Vespers has survived
as a popular evening service. Its basic structure combines
five psalms and a canticle and over the years the service
has become a focus for composers to provide elaborate music.
But plainchant remains an important thread running through
the service and on this new disc from Westminster Cathedral
the service is presented, not as some sort of historical
reconstruction, but as it might be performed in the Cathedral
on a major occasion at Christmas-tide.
Whilst the Psalms remain constant throughout the year,
the introductory sentences and antiphons to each of the Psalms
and to the Canticle are changed at each service. The service
on this disc is thus the First Vespers of Christmas, the
vespers that would be heard on the eve of Christmas.
The disc opens with Sweelinck’s stirring five-voice
motet Gaude et laetare. Westminster Cathedral Choir
is on fine form and this makes a wonderful start to the disc.
It is followed by an extended sequence of plainchant and
Following the introductory sentence, Deus in adjutorium
meum intende, the five vespers Psalms are performed
in sequence; each is preceded and followed by its own antiphon,
the repeat of the antiphon being followed by an organ improvisation.
The choir perform the chant in their traditional manner,
which means that boys as well as men sing with a discreet
This is not strictly how I like listening to chant;
I generally prefer it unaccompanied, but Westminster Cathedral’s
command of the genre is so masterly that I succumb to their
charms. The choir sings this chant at services regularly
and it shows; everything here feels natural and expressive
and their diction is exemplary
The organ improvisations, played by Matthew Martin,
provide fascinating punctuation points and in the service
must give a lovely pause for meditation and contemplation,
especially if, as here, the organist provides a commentary
on the material which has been heard and which is going to
This sequence is followed by the hymn, Christe redemptor
omnium, given in a setting by Matthew Martin based
on the plainchant.
The canticle, the Magnificat, is preceded and followed
by its own antiphon. The Magnificat itself if sung in a lovely
five-part setting by Thomas Tallis. Tallis’s music can be
difficult to date, the Latin text suggests the work was written
for Henry or Mary.
The Marian antiphon is that for the Christmas season, Alma
redemptoris mater, sung in a five-part setting by Victoria,
one that is richly coloured and spaciously grand, very
apt for the season. The disc reaches a joyful conclusion
with Schutz’s Hodie Christus Natus est. Fete by
Langlais provides a brilliant concluding voluntary.
This is not a disc for those who are expecting a brilliant
display of polyphony. The polyphonic works are beautifully
sung, but they are embedded in well-modulated plainchant
and it is this that provides the attraction for this disc.
To get the benefit from these performances requires quiet
Here Westminster Cathedral Choir and Martin Baker give
us a rich evocation of the complete service of Vespers at
the Cathedral as it is currently sung. If you close your
eyes you can almost smell the incense.
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