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An English Coronation, 1902-1953
Simon Russell Beale (speaker); Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Matthew Martin (organ)
Gabrieli Consort; Gabrieli Roar; Gabrieli Players; Chetham’s Symphonic Brass Ensemble/ Paul McCreesh
rec. 2018, Ely Cathedral, Royal Masonic School Chapel, Rickmansworth; Church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London.
Texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD569 [81:18 + 78:03]

Paul McCreesh’s discography includes several examples of his imaginative musical reconstructions of historical events. I think, for example of his 1989 recording A Venetian Coronation – one of the earliest examples, which he revisited in 2012 (review). There’s also his equally imaginative A Venetian Christmas and the spectacular Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning which Dan Morgan clearly enjoyed as much as I did. On this new release McCreesh offers a reconstruction of the music and some of the words heard at the Coronations of King Edward VII (1902), King George V (1911), King George VI (1937) and Queen Elizabeth II (1953). Quite a lot of the music was written specially for those coronation services and McCreesh‘s programme also includes a piece specifically composed for this project by David Matthews. However, tradition rightly plays an important part in the Coronation ritual and that’s true of the musical side too.

Before I talk about the discs, though, I think perhaps I ought to say a word about Gabrieli Roar since the name may be new to readers, as it was to me. This is the name of a choral training programme for young singers that has been set up by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort. Through the programme they work with a number of British youth choirs to give the young singers involved opportunities to explore further the riches of the choral repertoire alongside some of the professional singers from the Consort. I may be wrong but I suspect this marks the recording debut of Gabrieli Roar. Eleven partner choirs from around the UK are listed in the booklet and their members, singing under the Gabrieli Roar banner, are listed in the documentation; there must be over 300 names. I should say that the word “Roar” does not imply any over-enthusiastic singing: on the contrary, the singing throughout this programme is of a very high order indeed. In fact, the name comes, I’m sure, from the Winged Lion emblem under which Gabrieli works. It seems to me to be a fantastic idea. I think that the singers of Gabrieli Roar make up the ‘Coronation Choir’ in this project while there’s also a smaller ‘Westminster Choir’ comprised of some trebles plus the members of the Gabrieli Consort. The use of two distinct choirs will become clear in a moment, I hope.

In reconstructing the Coronation Service McCreesh has followed principally the Order of Service used in 1937 – though the same basic structure was followed at each Coronation there were variations each time. In the documentation not only are all the spoken and sung words printed but also the liturgical directions so that the listener gets a full picture of what was happening. The principal celebrant at the Coronation is always the Archbishop of Canterbury and that role is taken here by Simon Russell Beale. He’s ideally cast: he delivers the words very well indeed and without a trace of sanctimoniousness. He also sings the Preface and makes a good job of it. The spoken portions account for about 30 minutes out of the total playing time of 157 minutes. These spoken passages are part of the overall experience.

And it is an experience. This is far from jut a “concert” of the Coronation music. Great care has been taken to order the vocal forces in particular to replicate the musical logistics of the service. I mentioned two choirs: the Westminster Choir and the Coronation Choir, as used at the Coronations. The former sings the pieces that, by definition, call for a smaller ensemble. These include three of the anthems sung during the Homage, by Redford, Byrd and Gibbons. But there’s more to McCreesh’s planning than simply using a small choir for certain pieces and a larger one for others. The two choirs are used tellingly in Parry’s great anthem I was glad. I’ve heard this numerous times and I’ve sung it quite a few times. It’s far from unusual for a semi chorus to sing the short passage ‘O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ but McCreesh goes much further. He’s noticed that the vocal score for the 1902 Coronation – when the anthem was first sung – provided for the start of the anthem to be sung by one choir in procession. So, that’s what we get here. The Westminster Choir starts the anthem off, singing at a distance and drawing closer. It’s only when we get to the double choir antiphonal passage at ‘Jerusalem is builded as a city’ that the Coronation Choir joins in. This treatment means that we don’t get the great choral outburst to the usual extent at the very start but McCreesh’s authentic presentation is a very interesting alternative – and, my goodness, it works.

During the service there are copious opportunities for fanfares. These are played – marvellously – by the Chetham’s Symphonic Brass Ensemble. Seven Coronation fanfares were composed by Sir Ernest Bullock (1890-1979) who was Organist of Westminster Abbey between 1928 and 1941. I was tickled to read that the fanfare played at the moment of the Crowning is based on the music hall song Where did you get that hat? I wonder if anyone let on to the monarch.

Let me just pick out a few more highlights. The first two pieces – by Elgar and Howells – represent the extended selection of music that would be played – for an hour or more - as the congregation assembled. Elgar’s Coronation March (1911) is not an obvious crowd-pleaser in the manner of Pomp and Circumstance but it’s a very fine composition and deserves to be much better known. The King’s Herald is Howells’ adaptation for orchestra and organ of the first movement of his 1934 brass band suite, Pageantry. This reworking of the brass band piece was done for the 1937 Coronation and it’s a good, strong piece, especially as performed here.

Some of what we hear on these discs was recorded live in concert in Ely Cathedral on 23 July 2018 and the audience, taking the role of the Coronation congregation, joins in some of the pieces. One such example is the hymn O God, our help in ages past. Here, again, processional singing is used to great effect and the congregation, thrillingly reinforced by the cathedral organ played by Matthew Martin, join in three of the verses with great gusto. Even more imposing is the performance, much later, of Vaughan Williams’ celebrated version of The Old Hundredth. ‘All available trumpets’ are requested in the score for the first and last verses and the trumpeters really deliver the goods here. The huge sound of the congregation, brass and organ in the first and last verses – especially the latter – is great to hear but McCreesh really points up the contrasts in the quieter middle verses. That last verse, with the organ at full pelt and the brass ringing out, sounds absolutely stunning.

Naturally, Zadok the Priest is included; and it’s interesting to hear immediately afterwards the spoken words of the Anointing in which Zadok and Nathan are once again mentioned. In the anthem, after the orchestral introduction there is what I can only describe as a wall of choral sound when the Coronation Choir begins to sing; it’s tremendously exciting. In the following sections of the anthem, though a very large choir is being used there’s absolutely no sense of heaviness; the rhythms and short notes are enunciated with great clarity. The at times massive sound may give the HIP fraternity palpitations, but who cares?

I love the use of Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor during the service: the purity of the music is like the liturgical equivalent of a sorbet amid so much musical rich fare. It’s good to hear Stanford’s marvellous ‘Coronation’ Gloria in B flat, a splendid affair written for the 1911 Coronation. The outer sections are suitably jubilant and soprano Rowan Pierce is heard to excellent effect in the lyrical central section. The Gloria is followed by Gibbons’ lovely three-fold ‘Amen’, which is the last moment of musical repose before the musical big guns are fired.

I’m delighted that Paul McCreesh selected Walton’s setting of the Te Deum, composed for the 1953 Coronation of our present Queen. It’s an absolutely terrific piece and a very exciting response to the text. I’ve heard a number of fine recordings of it over the years, most notably, Louis Frémaux’s Birmingham version (review). However, this electrifying performance by McCreesh, superbly recorded, is, I believe, the finest I’ve ever heard. The music that follows needs a bit of explanation. In the Coronation service, after the Te Deum the new monarch and consort would retire to re-robe prior to the procession out of Westminster Abbey. This took quite a few minutes, during which the organist would improvise before the singing of the National Anthem. Instead of that improvisation, McCreesh commissioned David Matthews to write a new piece for orchestra with organ, culminating in the National Anthem. Matthews ingeniously works into what is, in essence, a Coronation Fantasia, thematic elements from several of the pieces heard earlier in the service. The piece is interesting and uses the instrumental forces as resourcefully as you’d expect with this composer. When the Anthem itself is ushered in (6:27) the arrival of the tune is surprisingly restrained and the first verse – set for chamber choir and strings – is subdued and thoughtful, which is a very interesting concept, I think. In the second verse, though, every conceivable stop is pulled out with organ, fanfare trumpets, full choir and orchestra and the congregation all involved. It’s probably the most spectacular version of the National Anthem known to man. The end is gloriously OTT. This is a pièce d’occasion if ever there was one; I doubt anyone would have the courage to include it at a future Coronation! And then proceedings end with Crown Imperial, the start of which sounds almost modest after the Matthews. McCreesh is brisk and colourful in the march itself but treats the big tune more expansively. He’s right to do so; what a tune it is! Personally, I think Walton outdoes the Elgar of Pomp and Circumstance.

So ends a memorable album. I hope I’ve managed to give a good flavour of this remarkable and imaginative project without giving everything away. Everything about it exudes scholarship but the scholarship is very lightly worn; this is no dry academic reconstruction. The research that has gone into this project extends not just to investigating the orders of service of the various Coronation services but also considering performance style of the time and the instruments used. Gut strings are used by all the stringed instruments and in the documentation there’s a list of the provenance of all the wind and brass instruments. All of these are of a sufficient vintage that they could have been played at some, if not all of the twentieth-century Coronations. But we know that one of them definitely was. For this project oboist Nicholas Daniel was loaned the 1906 French instrument that the distinguished oboist Léon Goossens played as a member of the orchestra at the 1937 Coronation of King George VI.

The recording was made at a number of sessions and in three different locations. However, everything has been seamlessly woven together by engineer Neil Hutchinson and producer Nicholas Parker. The sound quality is magnificent. The big ensembles have been thrillingly captured – the organ makes a mighty contribution - but the more intimate moments register just as well. I like the way that ambient noise has been retained between many of the items so that the listener feels drawn into the occasion. The set is comprehensively and fascinatingly documented.

This is a truly exciting release. In using that word I’m not just referring to the big, set-piece musical items. The smaller-scale pieces are just as thrilling to hear, but in a different fashion. But what makes this album particularly exciting is, firstly, the sense of history and tradition that is so vividly conveyed and, secondly, the fact that so many young musicians – clearly very talented – have been involved. The standard of performance is amazingly high throughout. One expects that from seasoned professionals such as comprise the Gabrieli Consort and Players but the members of Gabrieli Roar have clearly been encouraged and guided to perform to the same standards. Involvement in such a project must have been an extraordinary, possibly life-changing, experience for these young singers. I’m sure it will have made a lasting impression on them.

I predict that this album will also make a lasting impression on listeners.

John Quinn

Sir Edward Elgar Coronation March
Herbert Howells The King’s Herald
Martin Luther, harmony by JS Bach Hymn: Rejoice today with one accord
Charles Wood O most merciful
Thomas Tallis Litany
Isaac Watts, Attrib. William Croft Hymn: O God, our help in ages past
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry Chorale Fantasia on O God, our help
Sir Edward Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1
Sir Ernest Bullock Entrance Fanfare
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry I was glad
Sir Ernest Bullock The Presentation, Fanfares and Acclamations
The Administration and Signing of the Oath
Sir Edward Elgar Introit: O hearken Thou
The Collect
Epistle: Peter 2:13-17
Henry Purcell Gradual: Hear my prayer
Gospel: Matthew 22:15
Ralph Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor – Creed
Arr. Ernest Bullock Hymn: Come, Holy Ghost
The Prayer over the Ampulla
George Frideric Handel Zadok the Priest
The Anointing and Blessing
Prayers, Acclamations and Crowning Fanfare (Sir Ernest Bullock)
Sir Walter Parratt Confortare: Be strong and play the man
The King receives the Holy Bible
The Blessing of the King and People
The Exhortation
Anon, attrib. John Redford Rejoice in the Lord alway
William Byrd I will not leave you comfortless
Orlando Gibbons O clap your hands together
Samuel Sebastian Wesley Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace
Sir Ernest Bullock Homage Fanfare and Acclamations
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune
The Offertory Prayer and Prayer for the Church Militant
The Exhortation, General Confession and Absolution
The Preface
Ralph Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor – Sanctus
The Prayer of Humble Access and Prayer of Consecration
Ralph Vaughan Williams O taste and see
John Merbecke The Lord’s Prayer
The Post-Communion Prayer
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford ‘Coronation’ Gloria in B flat
The Blessing
Orlando Gibbons Threefold Amen
Sir William Walton Coronation Te Deum
David Matthews Recessional and National Anthem
Sir William Walton Coronation March: Crown Imperial

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