The Feast of Saint Peter the Apostle at Westminster Abbey
Maurice DURUFLE (1902 &ndash 1986) Tu es Petrus [0.58]
Philip RADCLIFFE (1905 &ndash 1986) Preces and Responses [7.28]
Henry George LEY (1887 &ndash 1962) Psalm 138 [2.41]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852 &ndash 1924) Service in B flat, Op. 10 (Te Deum, Jubilate, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis) [16.47]
William BYRD (1539/40 &ndash 1623) Mass for Five Voices [21.40]
Pierluigi da PALESTRINA(1525 &ndash 1594) Tu es Petrus [3.32]
William CROTCH (1775 &ndash 1847) Psalm 124 [2.00]
Sir William WALTON (1902 &ndash 1983) The Twelve [10.50]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 &ndash 1739), arr. Marcel DUPRÉ Sinfonia from Cantata 39 [4.12]
Robert Quinney (organ)
Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. Westminster Abbey 12-13, 23-24 February 2009
HYPERION CDA67770 [70:17]

This new recording from James O’Donnell and the Choir of Westminster Abbey celebrates the Abbey’s patron saint, St. Peter. The programme roughly follows the outline of daily services, starting with music for Matins, ending with Evensong and music for Eucharist at the centre. St. Peter is reflected in the presence of both Palestrina and Duruflé’s Tu es Petrus and more tangentially in Walton’s The Twelve as well as the Psalms laid down for use on the feast of St. Peter. None of the three sections is a complete service reconstruction but each manages to give a real flavour of the full service, with the Matins section including Philip Radcliffe’s Responses. Radcliffe was a Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge and his Preces and Responses were originally written for the Festival of Music within the Liturgy at Edington; Radcliffe sets the texts with warmth and skill.

At the centre of the disc is William Byrd’s Mass for five voices, in a profoundly thoughtful and contemplative performance. O’Donnell and his choir give a highly musical account of Byrd’s masterwork, whilst creating a rather low-key feeling. This is not a showy performance; instead you really feel that you are eavesdropping on a genuine liturgical event. The choir manages to imbue their account with a genuine Anglican spirituality. By performing the mass complete the choir includes a movement which is never performed liturgically (the Credo) and a pair of movements which are rarely, if ever, performed together (Kyrie and Gloria).

And this feeling seems to imbue the remainder of the disc. Even such works as Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus and Walton’s crisply articulated The Twelve, are presented in a slightly lower key than might otherwise be the case. But this does not mean that there is any sloppiness. Far from it, the large choir (18 boy choristers and 17 lay vicars) is finely disciplined, whilst giving individual lines shape and feeling.

The selection of music on the disc contributes to the distinctive timbre of the whole. Duruflé’s plainchant-inflected, thoughtful and devotional motet is followed by responses from Philip Radcliffe which are notable for their intelligence and usefulness rather than any sort of showing off. Henry George Ley’s chant for Psalm 138 and William Crotch’s Psalm 124, used in the Evensong segment are both securely in the Anglican chant tradition; intelligent, imaginative and either fascinating or dull, depending on how you feel about Anglican chant.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1879 Service in B flat is used for the Matins and Evensong canticles, though regrettably the choir only use four of Stanford’s five canticles. The service is a major milestone in the development of Anglican church music, representing the harnessing of Brahmsian symphonic technique to the needs of the Anglican liturgy. Stanford also included a setting of the communion service in the set but this was carefully geared to 19th century usage and is hardly ever performed today which is a shame. It would have been a very different disc but I can’t help wishing the choir could have given us Stanford’s Service in B flat complete.

Walton’s The Twelve is the longest single track on the disc and is a fine reflection of one of the composer’s relatively few sacred works. Though Westminster Abbey Choir’s performance is musical and finely sung, the prevailing acoustic means that Auden’s words rather go for naught.

The disc closes with organist Robert Quinney playing a dashing account of Marcel Dupré’s transcription of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata 39.

In keeping with the general tenor of the disc, James O’Donnell’s speeds are moderate, keeping things moving without dragging or pushing, but giving plenty of time for the music to speak; quite a necessity in a relatively resonant acoustic.

The distinctive make-up of the programme of this disc means that you will almost certainly end up duplicating something in your library. But this disc is highly commended for the way O’Donnell and his forces convey the thoughtful spirituality which goes into the daily musical performance at the Abbey.

Robert Hugill

Not showy; instead you really feel that you are eavesdropping on a genuine liturgical event.