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Music for Remembrance
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) 
, Op.9 (1947)* [37:53]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) 
Psalm 90: Lord, thou hast been our Refuge (1921) [8:19]
Philip MOORE (b.1943) 
The Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
 (2002) [15:11]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) 
Take him, earth, for cherishing
 (1964) [8:28]
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) 
The Peace that surpasseth Understanding
 (2009) [5:06]
*Christine Rice (mezzo); *Roderick Williams (baritone); ** David Martin (counter-tenor); Robert Quinney (organ); Westminster Abbey Choir
Britten Sinfonia/James O’Donnell<
rec. Westminster Abbey, 4, 5, 7 February 2013 (Duruflé, Vaughan Williams); 4 February 2014 (Tavener); St Alban’s, Holborn, London, 24 May 2013 (Howells, Moore)
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68020 [74:57]

The centenary of the outbreak of World War I has prompted an unprecedented amount of reflection in the UK and, I’m sure, in other countries also. We may be forgiven for wondering if the commemoration can be sustained at this level of dignity and thoughtfulness until 2018, as seems to be the intention. Already there have been quite a number of musical commemorations of the centenary on disc – and I have at least one more in my “to review” tray; doubtless there are more to come. However, as Brian Wilson said in his download review of this new release from Westminster Abbey: “We may have had our fill of special programmes on television and in history periodicals analysing the causes, progress and outcomes of that conflict but there is always space for a recording such as this.”

The principal item on the programme is Duruflé’s gloriously serene setting of the Requiem. Duruflé worked on the piece between 1945 and 1947 but I didn’t know until I read David Gammie’s very good notes, that it received its first performance in a broadcast concert on Radio France on 2 November 1947, the Feast of All Souls. This concert was a memorial to those killed in the war so the inclusion of Duruflé’s work in this present Remembrance programme is particularly appropriate.

The score exists in three versions: for full orchestra; for organ alone; and for organ and a small orchestra. It’s the latter version – the last one that Duruflé made – that James O’Donnell has chosen. That’s the same version that was used in a previous and very highly regarded Hyperion release by Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers. Best offers a different – but hugely satisfying – listening experience for his choir is an SATB ensemble whereas the Westminster choir has trebles and male altos. Another point of differentiation is that the Corydon Singers were recorded at what seems like a slightly greater distance from the microphones as compared to what we hear on this new disc. Probably it was necessary to tame the resonant Westminster Abbey acoustic by bring the choir closer to the microphones. The result is a very successful recording but, especially in the ethereal passages such as ‘In Paradisum’ you may feel that the earlier recording is a case of distance lending even more enchantment.

As I say, this new recording is very successful and that goes for the performance as well as the recorded sound. One thing that interests me is that on a number of occasions James O’Donnell gets some of his trebles to sing the alto line rather than his male altos. That’s usually in places where the top two parts are singing together and I expect he feels that it’s preferable to have more equal voices on each part. Examples include the two-part ‘Christe eleison’, ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ in the Offertoire and at the start of the Sanctus. In this last instance the male altos reclaim their line for the ‘Hosanna’ and it’s a very telling switch. I can’t recall hearing these passages presented in this way before but I think it works very well. The choir sings the Requiem extremely well and I particularly appreciate the way that O’Donnell, while bringing out all the serene beauty of the score, also injects the right touches of drama. The climactic ‘Kyrie’ is intense and passionate while the brief ‘Dies Irae’ in the ‘Libera me’ movement is biting and exciting; this is just one example of many where the edge of the trebles’ voices makes a positive difference to the timbre when compared with SATB performances.

The two soloists are excellent. Roderick Williams shows his usual sensitivity not just to the music but also to the text: his final phrase in Movement III – ‘fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam’ – is delivered in a compelling mezza voce. Christine Rice has the most substantial solo. I enjoyed her ’Pie Jesu’ very much, appreciating her rich, warm tone and poised delivery. I wondered if the important cello part was a just little too reticent but this is only a minor point. The accompaniment as a whole is expertly done, with Robert Quinney’s organ playing particularly impressive. Concluding with a suitably ethereal performance of ‘In Paradisum’ this is a very fine version of the Duruflé Requiem; it’s one to which I’m sure I’ll return often.

The remainder of the programme is shrewdly chosen. The multiple layers of Vaughan Williams’ Lord, thou hast been our Refuge come across very well in the Abbey acoustic and towards the end the shining trumpet tone of Paul Archibald makes a strong effect. In that piece RVW makes an effective use of a semi chorus, as does Sir John Tavener, though in a very different way, in The Peace that surpasseth Understanding. This was written for the Armistice Day service in the Abbey in 2009. It’s mainly for unaccompanied choir but right at the end Tavener interpolates four huge organ chords. These represent the Four Angels before the Throne of God. It’s a highly effective coup de théâtre, almost as stunning as the similar device in Tavener’s God is with us. I don’t think I’ve heard this work before and I found it very impressive. To me it offers further proof that Tavener was at his very best when writing small-scale religious pieces.

The Westminster choir gives a fine account of the wonderful, eloquent Howells anthem. The aching beauty and rich harmonic colours come over very well indeed. I was interested to see that this piece was recorded in what I imagine to be a somewhat smaller acoustic at the church of St Alban’s, Holborn. That was a good decision. Philip Moore’s The Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was set down in the same venue. This is fine music. The first two prayers are urgent and powerful and the choir sings them with great intensity and commitment. Then the beautifully tranquil and trusting final movement, ‘Evening prayers’, provides a very welcome and necessary contrast. In these Moore pieces there are several good solo contributions from members of the choir.

James O’Donnell’s excellent choir is on top form throughout this recital. Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have recorded them very well in both venues while David Gammie’s notes are up to Hyperion’s usual high standards. This perceptively planned and expertly performed programme is a thoughtful and important musical contribution to the commemoration of the Great War.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson