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Gregorian Chant from Westminster Cathedral
ANONYMOUS (mediaeval)
Advent Hymn: Conditor alme siderum [1:56] *Christmas Antiphon: Hodie Christus [1:02] *Professional Chant for Candlemass: Lumen [2:28] *Hymn for the cross: Vexilla regis [4:10] *Easter Responsory: Surrexit Dominus [1:00] *Two Easter versicles [1:05] *Hymn to the Holy Spirit: Veni Creator [2:41] *Kyrie: Orbis factor [1:56] *Trisagion from the Good Friday liturgy [1:23] *Three Easter Allelujahs [1:11] *Iam lucis [1:33] *An evening hymn: Te lucis [1:00] *Gregorian Grace before meals [0:30] *Two prayers of thanksgiving [0:42] *Christmas hymn: Puer natus [1:46] *Two antiphons for the dead - for the funeral of Phillyp Sparowe [0:34] *Funeral chant: In Paradisum [1:08] *A scripture reading [0:41] *Medieval teaching aid: Ut queant laxis [1:05] *Psalm: Laudate Dominum [0:49] *Alma Redemptoris Mater [2:33] *'A moto from the organ loft' [0:31] *Instrumental plainsong: In Nomine (settings by John Taverner) [1:23] *The Laudes regiae or Royal acclamations: Christus vincit [10:10] *Lumen Christi [0:46] **Exultet iam (mode 3) (Priest) [12:36] **Canticum: Cantemus Domino (mode 8) [3:24] **Alleluia: Confitemini Domini (mode 8) [2:01] **Litany [2:50] **Antiphon: Vidi aquam (mode 8) [1:27] **Offertory: Dextera Domini (mode 2) [1:46] **Communion: Alleluiah (mode 6) [1:34] **
Westminster Cathedral Choir/Stephen Cleobury *Benedictine Nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame, Argentan/Denise Lebon **

rec. October 1980 Westminster Cathedral UK ADD *; November 1983 Abbey of Notre-Dame, Argentan, France.ADD**
GRIFFIN GCCD4068 [74:14]

 

Experience Classicsonline


This won't be the preferred performance style of 'Gregorian' plainchant for everyone. At almost an hour and a quarter, it's nevertheless a generous selection of over 30 short pieces: only two substantial numbers exceed four minutes; the majority is under two. They're sung  in a style that's not exactly mannered or inappropriate, although the slightly 'precious' English choir school diction does detract from the music's impact at times. But with a kind of restrained and almost self-conscious gentility that has now largely been superseded. Gregorian Chant from Westminster Cathedral is evidently a reissue by the small independent label Griffin of music recorded in the early 1980s - a much earlier source than the copyright dates, 2006 and 2009, suggest. For one thing the CD's SPARS code is ADD and an audible background is present; for another Stephen Cleobury ceased to be music director at Westminster in 1982. Not that these are reasons to reject the CD. If you're new to plainchant, or have only experienced it in its definitely less than honest 'crossover' format, there is much to give pleasure in the music presented here. Just that its delivery is decidedly dated, although the music was selected and prepared by the late Mary Berry, a world authority in the area.

The 32 items are grouped into half a dozen or so areas: Music around the year; Languages of the Chant; Hours of the day and moments of life; The Song School; Instruments; Pageantry, with a single chant, the laudes regiae or christus (misspelled 'chritus' in the otherwise useful liner notes) vincit. Then, Easter Vigil is performed by the Benedictine nuns of the Argentan Abbey in France.

This is certainly a good way to expose anyone new to the field to ways in which chant worked during the early mediaeval period. But a recording these days would be built on greater vocal authenticity and acuity. Not that either Cleobury and the Westminster Cathedral Choir or Lebon and the Nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame, Argentan, makes the mistake of trying to impose spurious 'atmosphere'. This is singing, simple and unadorned, however innocent of musicological advances which have since gained almost universal acceptance.It's now thought that Gregory, whether as Pope or cleric, had little to do with either the codification or promulgation of the chant with which his name is traditionally associated. We also now know that the corpus of plain singing (almost certainly to make the verbal message easier to hear and thus to assimilate) was formed between the fifth and eighth centuries CE. Consistent with the tenacity with which early Christians followed and spread their faith and its trappings, so the music had begun to be written down and to some extent established in set forms by the eleventh century.

Examples of this body of music are presented here. To some extent that presentation suffers from being a series of individual pieces, albeit connected into the themes just mentioned. They don't extend into a more meaningful recreation or even a simple recording of worship or perhaps a staged sequence. In that case the intensity and distilled concentration of melodic line (with implied harmonies if you like) could have been appreciated at length.

Such an approach has in its favour, though, the way the music consequently moves from one focus to the next without any real cohesion… as a side effect there is certainly variety on this CD. Even given the feeling which the listener has of being whisked from one short extract to another, interest is maintained. They're even interspersed with short spoken, organ and set items - Taverner's In Nomine, for example.

The music sounds very much as an updated and somewhat more 'punchy' nineteenth century vision of plainchant - which is precisely what it is. If you can live with this quite understandable inauthenticity of delivery and perhaps of conception, or treat it as a useful document of how such music was perceived 30 years ago as the 'early' music movement was getting into its stride, then you will surely find something here to enjoy. But you should be aware that much has changed since the early 1980s; work like that of Ensemble Organum with Marcel Pérès is much more representative of best practice.

Mark Sealey

 


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