The title of this disc, From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral,
gives a clue to its intentions. The music presented here - mass
sequences for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany - is not intended
to be an historic reconstruction of early practice, but to reflect
the traditions and performing practices of Westminster Cathedral
musical foundations were laid by Richard Terry, who was Master
of Music from 1902 to 1924. Whereas contemporary Anglican
cathedrals had repertoires which were heavily dependent on
19th century music, Terry was keen that music at
the Cathedral would reflect aspects of Catholic liturgical
renewal, so that the two main supports were renaissance polyphony
and plainchant. To this was added a stream of contemporary
commissions, notable amongst which was Ralph Vaughan Williams'
Mass in G minor. Substantially, polyphony, plainchant and
commissioned works remain the mainstays of the choir's repertoire
Before we get
all romantic and imagine the men and boys of the cathedral
choir singing plainchant in what is perceived as a pure unaccompanied
medieval manner, it must be understood that they adhere to
the Roman Catholic tradition of accompanying the chant on
the organ. This means that the opening Rorate Coeli develops
a very romantic atmosphere as the verses alternate between
soli, boys and men before finally building to full choir,
all accompanied by organ.
The first section
starts with this plainchant Rorate Coeli and is followed
by Victoria's Descendit Angelus Domini.. We then have
another Rorate Coeli, this time a setting by William
Byrd, acting as the Introit to the Votive Mass for the Blessed
Virgin Mary in Advent. Here the mass ordinary is sung to the
plainchant Mass X 'Alme Pater'. As everywhere else on the
disc, the plainchant mixes boys only, men only and full choir,
all with organ. Byrd's Tollite Portas forms the Gradual,
his Ave Maria the Alleluia and his Ecce Virgo concipiet
the Communion, all (including the Introit) are the correct
propers for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Miry in
Advent taken from Byrd's Gradualia.
sequence starts with plainchant Psalm 2 sung in English, followed
by a setting of Adam lay y bounden by Matthew Martin,
the current organist. This lovely unaccompanied piece displays
rich textures and nice clarity. Then George Malcolm's Missa
ad Praesepe; Malcolm was the Cathedral's Master of Music
from 1947 to 1959. This gentle tuneful work, for choir and
organ, is definitely not neo-Palestrina, as the choral writing
is substantially homophonic.
The final sequence
is for Epiphany and the Presentation. Here Monteverdi's Messa
a 4 da cappella is interspersed with a plainchant Alleluia
and Lassus's Omnes de Saba. The Monteverdi is performed
in a very definitely choral manner, with quite a big sound,
rather than a more modern 1-to-a-part feel. The choir points
the rhythms nicely, but the boys sometimes smudge the runs
in faster moments like the Gloria. The sequence concludes
with Maurice Bevan's Magnificat which alternates plainchant
with polyphonic verses and improvised organ verses. Bevan's
polyphonic verses are very much in the style of Gabrieli and
contrast admirably with Martin Baker's lively improvisations.
The Nunc Dimittis is by Charles Wood whose Latin setting
was commissioned by Terry in 1916.
Baker improvises a Marche des Rois Mages at
the Grande Orgue; a very perky march indeed with hints of
Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The choir make
a fine open sound. Though the trebles still have an edgier,
more focused sound than the traditional English cathedral
choir, I did rather feel that they have a softer edge than
of late. When listening on headphones, I thought I detected
hints of instability and untidiness in the upper voices, but
this was far less apparent when listening on speakers. The
choir have the big advantage in that they sing this repertoire
day in day out; they actually sing as if the words really
mean something to them, and their diction is admirable.
Martin Baker impressively
drives the huge machine that is the Grande Orgue (all 78 stops
of it) in the improvisations in the Bevan and at the end,
along with Christmas strepitus after the intonation
of the Gloria in the Missa ad praesepe.
This is an imaginative
and attractive disc and will be of interest particularly to those
who follow both Roman Catholic musical traditions and those of
Westminster Cathedral. Perhaps the choir are not quite on their
top form, but all in all they provide a nice snapshot of the Cathedral's
distinctive musical heritage.