Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Spirit of the Saints
Kyrie (Westminster Mass) [3:43]
Plainchant Kyrie Cum Jubilo [1:57]
Kyrie Cum Jubilo* [3:33]
Gloria (Westminster Mass) [6:41]
Sleep Little Jesus (Angels Sing!) [3:13]
Deus, Deus meus (Westminster Mass) [5:43]
The Spirit of the Saints [4:19]
Ave Maria [3:57]
Hail little golden star (Angels Sing!) [4:07]
Sanctus (Westminster Mass) [1:29]
Benedictus (Westminster Mass) [1:39]
All in Tune [3:47]
Memorial Acclamation (Westminster Mass) [1:39]
Amen (Westminster Mass) [0:30]
Jesus Christ is born today (Angels Sing!) [1:15]
Agnus Dei (Westminster Mass) [4:08]
Triumphant King (Angels Sing!) [2:58]
David Terry (organ)
The London Oratory School Schola/Lee Ward (director and *organ)
rec. 20-21 June, 10-11 October 2008, 24 January 2009, Hampstead Parish Church, London. DDD
English texts included
REGENT REGCD293 [54:23]

I have one complaint about this CD and as, for me, it’s quite a serious one I’ll deal with it first. It concerns the ordering of the music, which could fairly be described as perverse. As will be seen from the track-listing above someone has had the bright idea of splitting up the Westminster Mass and interspersing its movements with other music. The four carols that make up Angels Sing! have likewise been separated; that’s more tolerable, though it would still have been preferable to programme them as the sequence that the composer presumably intended. I can’t imagine what is the thinking behind this. Perhaps someone thought that as the Mass movements wouldn’t be heard consecutively in a liturgical context then it’s acceptable to separate them on CD. But even if one accepts that argument – which I don’t – it makes no sense to separate the Kyrie and Gloria, which would normally follow each other as a sequence, whether in a concert performance or in the liturgy. Even more crass are the decisions to separate the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Memorial Acclamation and Amen, especially with a jolly carol, and then to interpose another extrovert carol before the Agnus Dei. This programming is musically and liturgically insensitive, to put it mildly, and it does a disservice to the music. In my view it would have been far more satisfactory if the disc had begun with the plainchant Kyrie followed by the organ solo, which is based on that chant melody. The Mass could then have followed as an uninterrupted sequence, followed by the miscellaneous pieces. The four carols that constitute Angels Sing! would have made an excellent and coherent finale. I know one can programme one’s CD player but that shouldn’t be necessary. This is a very bad editorial decision.

All right; rant over. Let’s look at the positive features of this CD, of which, happily, there are many.

The main item is the Westminster Mass, which was commissioned to celebrate the 75th birthday of Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999). Originally it existed in two versions. One was with accompaniment by organ only and in the other version the accompaniment consists of two harps, tubular bells and strings. It was in that latter version that I first encountered it when it was recorded on a 1999 Teldec CD by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under James O’Donnell (3984-28069-2) though I was surprised to see that when the disc was reissued some years later (review) the Panufnik Mass had been omitted.

This present disc uses a subsequent version made for Clifton Cathedral, Bristol, which uses one harp, bells and organ and this is its first recording in that form. I’ve never heard the version for organ only but since so much of Miss Panufnik’s scoring is inspired by the sound of bells I wonder if an organ alone can do full justice to the piece. It’s a most attractive Mass setting. The harp and bells, which are used very effectively, add significantly to the appeal of the music. The tone of the music itself is not always conventional. For instance, the Gloria eschews the exuberance of many settings. Instead the music is imbued with what the composer refers to as “ the “glow” of the love of God and the warmth that radiates from the first two lines [of the text].” Though much of the music in this Mass is fundamentally joyful in tone a more reflective tone is experienced in ‘Deus, Deus meus’. This is a setting, for unaccompanied choir, of lines from Psalm 62 (63) and was included at the specific request of Cardinal Hume. This movement is intense and intersperses Latin and English words. The Sanctus is a very pleasing movement, memorably described elsewhere by John Steane as “not the usual awe-struck worship but a happy gambolling of children before a throne decked for Christmas.” In these words Steane sums up so much of the Mass – and, indeed, the other music on the disc – which, for all its sophistication often has a sense of innocence about it. The Agnus Dei sounds tense and troubled at the start but after an intense climax the music subsides to a calm ending.

The four carol settings are also very attractive. They can be sung either in Polish or in English and it’s the latter that’s used here. All take Polish traditional tunes as their inspiration. Sleep Little Jesus is probably the best known – I’m sure it’s been sung at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge and it’s been recorded a few times. It’s the only one of the four that’s scored for SATB. The others, which were new to me, are for treble voices only and all three convey the joy of Christmas in a fresh and pleasing way – I love the cheeky organ part in Jesus Christ is born today.

All the other pieces are attractive but one stood out for me, namely Ave Maria. One is accustomed to hearing prayerful, reverent musical settings of this text. However, Roxanna Panufnik’s take on it is rather different. She points out that these words are said to have been spoken to Mary by the Angel at the Annunciation and so, for her, “this is a moment of intense excitement, mystery and drama.” That viewpoint stems from her own feelings when she learned that she was pregnant. It’s an insightful thought and, dare I say it, one that might well not have occurred to a male composer. Fired by this idea Miss Panufnik produces a setting of the text that is more dramatic than many, and it’s a good one.

The choir on this recording comprises boys, whose ages range from 7 to 18, and some lay clerks. They are accustomed to singing the Roman Catholic liturgy every week at their school and elsewhere. They make a good sound and sing with commitment and polish. Lee Ward has evidently trained them well. The recorded sound is good as is the documentation, which includes notes by the composer.

Despite my reservation about the programming of the disc the music is worthwhile and very enjoyable, as are the performances, and this disc will give a good deal of pleasure.

John Quinn

Music that is worthwhile and very enjoyable in good performances.