St Peter’s Day at York Minster - A musical celebration of the patronal festival
The Choir of York Minster/Robert Sharpe
David Pipe (organ)
rec. York Minster, 2014 REGENT REGCD439 [79:24]
This is one of the very finest recordings of English Cathedral music that I have heard in some years. The programme is well designed, the performances of a high order, and the recorded sound captures superbly the acoustic of York Minster - which I experienced with some frequency in my youth. Indeed, I would count recording engineer Gary Cole and his assistant Andy Gammon among the stars of this CD. Overall St. Peter’s Day at York Minster demonstrates to perfection my long-held belief that the music of the English Cathedrals, in our own day at least, is at its best when it remains true to its roots without allowing itself to become merely parochial.
Since its foundation in 627, York Minster has been dedicated to St. Peter, so it is entirely appropriate that its musical forces should present a programme dedicated to their Patronal Saint – even if it was recorded in January, rather than around St. Peter’s Saint’s Day – 29 June. In another sense, too, this programme is firmly rooted in York and its Minster. It contains a good deal of music written by composers connected with the Minster, some of it, indeed, originally written for performance there. So, for example, George Surtees Talbot was a Vicar Choral of the Minster and, in the words of the excellent booklet notes by John Lees, “in collaboration with Edward Bairstow, Minster organist from 1913, he did much to revitalise the musical life and the repertoire of the choir”. Richard Shephard also has strong connections with York — although his Preces and his Responses and Collects were written for Salisbury Cathedral, as was And when the builders — having been Headmaster of York Minster School from 1985-2004. Currently he holds the position of Chamberlain of the Minster. Francis Jackson was a chorister from 1929-33, under Bairstow and was later organist of the Minster, from 1946 to 1982. He was succeeded by Philip Moore - two of whose works are included here - who was organist and Master of the Music at the Minster from 1983-2008. These ‘York’ composers are at the centre of the programme. Around them is a circle of ‘ecclesiastical’ composers based in major English churches other than York. They include Samuel Arnold (organist of Westminster Abbey from 1789 - some authorities say 1793 – until 1802), William Henry Harris (organist at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, 1933-61), Thomas Attwood (organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1796 until his death in 1838) and David Briggs (see below). Beyond this is another circle of English composers who largely worked outside the church but wrote significant music for its use, such as Purcell, Stanford and Howells. This ‘circle’ extends beyond the channel to include Duruflé, who is represented by ‘Tu es Petrus’ one of his Quatre Motets sur des themes grégoriens. The ‘bridge’ which links Duruflé’s motif to all this English music is, in effect, the Missa Brevis by David Briggs. Briggs has not, so far as I know, ever held an appointment at York; he has, though, held posts as an organist at Hereford, Truro and Gloucester cathedrals. He also studied in Paris with Jean Langlais and spent more than ten years transcribing recorded improvisations by another great French organist, Pierre Cochereau. As performer and composer alike, Briggs is thus steeped in both English and French traditions. John Lees, to quote him once more, gets it exactly right when he observes of the Missa Brevis that “the impressionism of the harmonic language, and the improvisatory character of much of the writing, stand firmly in the line of the Masses of Widor, Vierne, and Langlais, yet there is an English quality of understatement about Briggs’ sound-world that defines his unique voice”. Though he may not have the same kind of connections to York that many of the composers on this disc have, Briggs is quoted as saying that he wrote the piece ‘with the huge and wondrous space of York in mind – it is “big-building music”’ – and it certainly works well in the Minster acoustic as recorded here.
The very first sounds one hears on the CD – the opening bell and prayer – make a persuasive call to spiritual attention, as it were. This is immediately followed by the singing of a processional hymn, with the words of the seventh century hymn ‘Angularis fundamentun’, in the 1861 translation by John Mason Neale (1818-66), sung to the tune of ‘Westminster Abbey’ (adapted from the ‘Hallelujah’ of Purcell’s anthem O God, thou art my God (1680-82). This very English opening prepares the way for the Anglo-French idiom of David Briggs’ Missa Brevis, which is the longest work on the CD and perhaps the most impressive single performance to be heard here. Its range of sound, from the depths of the Minster organ to something like the highest notes of the choir, its sometimes elusive (and allusive?) harmonies and its architectural qualities make it an attractive addition to the genre of the ‘missa brevis’. This first recording of the work has both power and subtlety, as required. The ‘Gloria’ is especially fine and memorable, rising to a striking climax at ‘Domine Deus, Rex Caelestis’ and successfully exploiting the spacious acoustic of the Minster. David Pipe responds impressively to the considerable demands which Briggs’ writing makes on the organist. The relative hush of the ‘Benedictus’ works well after the spectacular ‘Sanctus’ and the closing ‘Agnus Dei’ is moving and dignified. This is a work which deserves more performances and recordings. Duruflé’s ‘Tu es Petrus’ has had more refined recordings than this, but there is an impressive passion and sureness of technique in the Minster Choir’s reading of this beautiful motet. The beauty of the setting of Psalm 150 by George Surtees Talbot makes it easy to understand why, when the composer ‘shyly’ presented it to Edward Bairstow, Bairstow should have judged it to be one “of the most distinguished and beautiful chants” he knew.
Elsewhere in the CD’s extensive programme, Samuel Arnold’s setting of the first seven verses of Psalm 95 is an attractive example of late eighteenth-century ecclesiastical music, in a sure-footed performance. Herbert Howells' ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis’ will be more familiar than some of the other music on the disc, although listeners should be aware that this is the setting written for New College, Oxford in 1947, and shouldn’t be confused with Howells' settings of the same texts Howells produced for King’s College, Cambridge (1944-5) and Gloucester Cathedral (1945-6). This is perhaps the least well-known of the three settings, but it works well here, though in an acoustic very different from that of New College Chapel. The choir sings, and David Pipe plays, with superb control of dynamic variation, and the result carries a considerable emotional charge. Its closing ‘hymns of praise’ which end the two sections, compare favourably, to my ears and mind, with the more grandiose writing of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum (in the arrangement by Simon Preston), which closes the whole outstanding CD. Between the works by Howells and Walton, and eminently fit to keep such company, comes Philip Moore’s O quamgloriosum, which was commissioned by the Minster soon after Moore took up his position as organist at the Minster, and was first performed on St. Peter’s Day in 1986. The piece makes expressive use of changes of tempos and rhythm and a lively organ part; it gets a fine performance.
One of the few relatively disappointing moments on this disc comes with Francis Jackson’s setting of verses from Psalm 71, which I wouldn’t put near the top of any list of that distinguished composer’s best works. The larger feeling is thoroughly positive, not least when listening to Philip Moore’s Jubilate Deo (titled in Latin, but sung in the English of the Book of Common Prayer), which is an exhilarating piece full of joy. At times it is in danger — though the danger is inseparable from the joy — of becoming a kind of musical and textual tongue-twister as it rushes along at great speed. This Jubilate is delightful and uplifting, the writing for organ and choir splendidly complementary. Very different is the profound simplicity — a simplicity created out of much craft and art — of Thomas Attwood’s Psalm 138, its simplicity perfectly in tune with the text being set. There is further exuberance and exhilaration in Richard Shephard’s And when the builders, a piece full of extrovert vivacity. Altogether, and altogether more appropriately, sober are the same composer’s Responses and Collects, which fulfil their liturgical task with exemplary clarity and purpose. William Henry Harris’s Holy is the true light has an almost aethereal quality of a quite distinctive kind, in part because of its approach to a kind of modalism.
This, then, is a feast of Christian music, displaying most of the virtues of the English Cathedral tradition of music-making without ever being remotely in danger of mere display. Add to that a superb and evocative recorded sound and you have a CD that stand as a supreme exemplar of its genre. Glyn Pursglove
Track listing The Eucharist
Bell and Aisle Prayer [1:08] Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Christ is made the sure foundation [2:39] David BRIGGS (b.1962)
Missa Brevis (2012) [15:12] Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Tu es Petrus (1960) [0:45] George Surtees TALBOT (1875-1918)
Psalm 150 [2:11] Matins Richard SHEPHARD (b.1949)
Preces (1973) [1:12] Samuel ARNOLD (1740-1802)
Venite [2:18] Francis JACKSON (b.1917)
Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17 [3:32] Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Te Deum Laudamus in C (1909) [7:40] Philip MOORE (b.1943)
Jubilate Deo (2001) [3:05] Richard SHEPHARD (b.1949)
Responses and Collects [5:51]
And when the builders (1980) [4:40] Evensong William Henry HARRIS (1883-1973)
Holy is the true light (1948) [1:52] Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838)
Psalm 138 [3:02] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for New College, Oxford (1947) [8:33] Philip MOORE (b.1943)
O quam gloriosum (1986) [6:19] William WALTON (1902-1983)
Coronation Te Deum (1953) [9:23]