The Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir was formed in 1998 by
Stephen Shellard, who is a Lay Clerk in the cathedral choir.
For this recording it musters 13 sopranos, 10 altos, 8 tenors
and 7 basses.
This disc was made particularly to mark the centenary of the
first performance of Five Mystical Songs, which took
place in Worcester Cathedral at the Three Choirs Festival on
14 September 1911. That was a performance of the full orchestral
score; here the accompaniment is played, very sympathetically,
on the cathedral organ by George Castle. There are many positive
features to the performance, not least the fact that everyone
involved sounds committed to the music. That’s certainly
true of the baritone soloist, Ben Cooper, who, like the conductor,
is a Lay Clerk at Worcester Cathedral. Unfortunately, though
he sings accurately and with admirable clarity of tone and diction,
I don’t think that Ben Cooper’s voice is ideal to
do full justice to the music - or, at least, not for repeated
hearings. His well-focused voice is that of a high baritone;
indeed, it has some tenorial qualities. The snag is that he
doesn’t have the sheer amplitude that the vocal part really
needs and that one has heard from many other soloists - and
not just high profile artists on disc. His is an intelligent
performance that I would be pleased to hear live in concert
but the lightness of the voice is a key reason why, in the last
analysis, the performance of these lovely songs sounds low-key,
though the choir does deliver the final one, ‘Antiphon’,
with good spirit.
The other composers and pieces in the programme also have solid
Three Choirs Festival connections. Stanford gets fairly scant
measure but his exquisite TheBlue Bird
suits the choir well. Parry is much more generously represented.
Hear my words, ye people is a bit too longwinded - and
I say that as a Parry admirer - though the Worcester choir makes
a good case for it and the important bass and soprano solos
are well taken. I was glad that a couple of Parry’s Chorale
Preludes were included for we don’t hear his organ music
all that often nowadays. George Castle, who plays splendidly
throughout the programme, does both of them well, especially
the rather splendid Prelude on Croft’s 136th
, which shows Parry’s reverence for Bach.
It’s right and proper that a Worcester choir should offer
Elgar. The three early settings of O salutaris hostia
need not detain us long. They are early works; simple, direct
and devotional in tone, but none of them sets the pulse racing
and I doubt they would be heard at all nowadays were not Elgar’s
name attached to them. Much more interesting is a work from
the opposite end of Elgar’s composing life. Indeed, the
Memorial Ode for Queen Alexandra was one of his very
last works. The instrumental parts were lost and the piece lay
in complete neglect until Anthony Payne - who else? - orchestrated
it in 2002. I’ve heard it before now in that guise and
in the organ version, recorded here. It’s not great Elgar
- the creative fires were by then but embers - but the embers
still glowed and the music was well worth reviving even if the
words by John Masefield are, as it says in the anonymous liner
notes, “very much of their time.” The performance
on this disc is very good.
The Worcester choir also makes a good job of Elgar’s The
Spirit of the Lord. This is the opening of the oratorio,
The Apostles, though it’s often done as a separate
anthem, as here. I admired very much the atmospheric organ playing
of George Castle in this piece and also the lovely clear sound
that the sopranos produce when they have that memorable tune
at “For as the earth bringeth forth her bud.” I
was a little less impressed with Light out of darkness.
The music, from an oratorio which is much earlier than Apostles,
is weaker and I felt that the choir needed to give more “beef”
in the louder passages.
Make no mistake, the Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir is good
one and it’s been very well prepared by Stephen Shellard.
I’ve sung in all the pieces on this disc with the exception
of the settings of O salutaris hostia so I know that
the music requires a lot of effort to get right. In particular,
I admired this choir’s scrupulous attention to detail,
especially in the matter of dynamics, yet all the dynamic contrasts
sound natural and not studied. The principal reservation I have
concerns the balance. At the top of this review I referred to
the make-up of the choir and it’s noticeable that there
are only seven basses out of a choir numbering thirty-eight
singers. Furthermore, the basses sound fundamentally light in
tone. No one wants to hear turgid, bottom-heavy singing but
I think an extra two or three basses might have made a considerable
amount of difference. As it is, My soul, there is a country
is one of several examples where the balance is weighted too
much in favour of the sopranos.
I should mention one unusual feature of this disc. The booklet
contains some reproductions of paintings of Worcester Cathedral,
including the cover picture, and of the composers represented.
These have been specially commissioned for this recording by
the choir from a Worcestershire-based artist, Craig Letourneau
- a most imaginative touch.
This is an enjoyable disc containing some fine and discerningly
chosen music. I’m sure it will give pleasure to anyone
buying it though it enters a highly competitive field and, in
particular, there are several versions of Five Mystical Songs
in the catalogue that offer a more compelling experience.