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Sir Edward Cuthbert BAIRSTOW (1874-1966)
Blessed city, heavenly Salem (1914) [8:49]
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1907) [3:43]
The Lamentation (1942) [8:22]
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us, O Lord God (1959) [3:50]
Strengthen ye the weak hands (1949) [6:49]
Faire is the heaven (1925) [5:07]
Flourish for an Occasion (1947) [5:21]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
‘A Song of Wisdom,’ op. 113, no. 6a (1909) [4:49]
‘O for a closer walk with God’, op. 113, no. 6b (1909) [3:09]
For lo, I raise up, op. 145 (1914-15) [7:48]
Evening Service in A, op. 12 (1880) [12:16]
Festival Communion Service in B flat, op. 128: ‘Gloria in excelsis’ (1910) [5:32]
Westminster Abbey Choir/James O’Donnell
Peter Holder (organ)
rec. 2018, Westminster Abbey
Booklet includes texts as sung in English.
HYPERION CDA68259 [75:40]

You might be surprised to learn that the Westminster Abbey Choir (hereafter WAC) comprises, on this CD, just 30 singers: 12 adults, i.e. 4 countertenors, 4 tenors and 4 basses and 18 boys. And how clearly they sing in the big space of their home territory, ably championed when required by the Westminster Abbey’s Harrison and Harrison grand organ, a massive beast of 5 manuals and 94 stops.

The three composers featured are all represented by a big work. Edward Bairstow’s Blessed city, heavenly Salem starts this CD, a setting of the 7th century hymn ‘Urbs beata Hierusalem’. The complete hymn consists of three parts plus a doxology: Bairstow sets Part 1 and his final verse (5) is the first of Part 3. Here’s a youtube file of the plainsong original, a beautiful, flowing contemplative melody. Bairstow takes it into the 20th century, carving it into individual phrases for examination, vividly, you could say violently, adorned with organ garnishing and contrasts of dynamic and scoring. In the opening verse we move from a full choir fortissimo acclamation of the title words to the tenors’ mezzo forte at “Vision dear of peace and love”, the angels’ hands depicted by the trebles and altos and the increase in tempo as the vocal parts rush in turn “As a bride doth earthward move”. Reflection is for you to undertake afterwards: this is about being fully aware of the hymn’s text as it comes. The second verse, “Out of heav’n from God descending” (tr. 1, 1:57) has WAC’s trebles in newly-minted radiance for the city’s gold gates, the plainsong in a spick and span makeover. The tenors and basses cut in with verse 3, “Bright thy gates of pearl are shining” (2:43) with a brawny organ undertow. Now comes the dynamic contrast: all this ideal city is a reward for the faithful souls who suffered pain and tribulation in Christ’s name, a tellingly soft moment for full choir, the plainsong emerging from its disguise to signal empathy. There are a few seconds of peace to contemplate this, before the organ girds itself up to introduce WAC’s explosive attack in verse 4, “Many a blow and biting sculpture” (3:59) which celebrates aggressively the toil involved in creating a temple to last for ever. The organ now has a cadenza that moves from blaring to mellow, because the glory of this anthem is the “still, small voice” of God, if I may allude to 1 Kings 19:13, to be looked for in the activity of prayer. And verse 5, “In this Temple, where we call Thee” (5:45) has its own still, small voice in the treble solo layered over the lower voices, Ruilhan Bao-Smith’s offering has great purity free, of affectation, with the other voices clear yet in no way obstructing, rendering the whole an active prayer by the entire community. In the Adagio coda the trebles’ “And Thy fullest benediction” floating over the gently undulating Amens of the lower parts really is like a blessing. A lovely bonus in the first Amen (8:00) is the optional bass pp bottom D flat.
I compared the 2013 recording by St Peter’s College, Oxford Choir/Roger Allen (OxRecs OXCD-121). This is a mixed voice choir, enthusiastic, youthful, but not as crisp and assertively exultant as WAC whose boys’ angels have more of a celestial glint. The St Peter’s sopranos are good in verse 2. “Pain” is more strongly accented by St Peter’s in verse 3, but the ritardando and diminuendo at ‘tribulation’ less and thereby less effective than WAC, because the thought seems a little swept over. Verse 4 has clarity and crispness but not the steelier quality that WAC show, which is a degree pugnacious yet present in both text and music. In verse 5 St Peter’s soprano soloist, Lucy Cox, is more emotive than WAC’s treble Bao-Smith, making the prayer more pleading and moving than Bao-Smith’s more pristine treatment. Inevitably the 18 speaking stops of St Peter’s restored Father Willis organ are no match for the monumental Westminster Abbey instrument. The latter is in your face quite a lot, but listening to the St Peter’s recording I missed this rigour.

‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ is Bairstow’s most sung work because the variety within its brevity makes it a rewarding and effective piece for a good parish choir. The title text is eerily intoned by tenors and basses an octave apart, pianissimo. O’Donnell makes this Molto maestoso command occur in an icy expanse, chillier because of its softness, yet still progressing and immediately developed by the sopranos and altos “and lift itself above all earthly thought” whose clear, though quite pallid, rise in tessitura seems striving to escape from the mire. A trudge by the full choir culminates in the avowal “Christ our God”, O’Donnell achieving a natural yet expressive emphasis on the highest note ‘our’, allowing the next louder passage and swells to display an understanding of and identification with Christ’s gift. Then, in a pp and slowing down at “to the faithful”, comes an other-worldly appreciation of being part of a select group. The central section, “Before him come the choirs of angels” whisks us Poco pił animato away to Christ in heaven surrounded by the activity of cherubim and seraphim, whose exultant shout is experienced in the trebles’ top A, rendered by WAC with some steel before two fortissimo Alleluias ring out through the vast Westminster space. A third Alleluia drops to a whisper as the title text returns, this time from soft tenor and bass soloists, but the choir very softly ingesting “and stand with trembling”. When well done, as it is here, it sends a shiver through you. There you have it: humility, attestation, exhilaration and back to humility all in a short space.

Again, I compared St Peter’s College Oxford Choir, this time directed by David Quinn who achieves a more hushed, cowed opening. But the mixed voice upper parts weaken the distinction between earth and heaven that I feel with WAC’s trebles’ entry. Quinn’s treatment of the trudge “For the King of kings” is for me too light. In observing the marking Poco marcato it sounds like prancing, where I feel it should be, as O’Donnell is, trying to make light of heaviness, but the rest of this section has from Quinn a luminous directness. Admittedly “to the faithful” is made less exclusive than with O’Donnell because Quinn slows down very little, but O’Donnell does, risking the intonation will hold and that it does adds to this statement of distinctiveness. Quinn’s central section has less contrast and bite than O’Donnell’s: he achieves beauty and clarity of sound but misses O’Donnell’s searing energy. St Peter’s Chapel’s relatively dead acoustic in comparison with Westminster Abbey’s disadvantages the Alleluias, but the end shivers OK.

In ‘The Lamentation’ Bairstow uses variation again, not with plainsong as in ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’ but Anglican chant. This setting of a text from Jeremiah was used at York Minster for Lenten Fridays, Passion Sunday and Matins during Holy Week and is another piece a good parish choir could sing. It is in 3 sections, the first of which (verses 1-7) is headed “The Prophet mourneth for the sins of the people of God”. It’s fascinating in its sophistication. Bairstow takes the stability of chant, which O’Donnell ensures is smoothly, calmly delivered, but inserts discords at its cadences, discords that whisper rather than shout, so a shadow of disquiet passes over the scene, for instance in the first verse at ‘people’ (tr. 3, 0:10), then an unsettling smidgen, at ‘widow’ (0:17). You listen intently to see if the effect remains for the next verse. Yes, and for the next. The fourth verse introduces a second chant, a variation of the first with the same general shape but different intervals and higher tessitura. It’s like suddenly entering a coldly spotlit environment, the emphatic part of which is the trebles’ raw ascent to, in context, moderately high D at the end of the first part, “The ways of Zion do mourn” (0:58). After two more verses this section closes in powerful protest as all parts sing the trebles’ line in unison for two further verses. The mighty Westminster organ becomes more active and fulminates with a roaring discord at the beginning of the second half of the chant. After all the work’s three sections comes the refrain in C major, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God”, a Largo espressivo exhortation with thunderbolt opening cries, like the Alleluias in ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, followed by the trebles’ climax on F at ”return” before a reflective diminuendo. This should be reassuring, but can’t quite be until an actual return.

The second section, “Christ recalleth us to God by his Passion” (verses 8-16) begins with a return to the first chant and its unease, but in this performance the organ accompaniment now identifies the discords more clearly, as five verses explicate suffering. The sixth and seventh verses are the second chant now presented by tenors and basses with a dense organ accompaniment with discordant crunches, the atmosphere now one of aching lamentation. The trebles take over the chant for the next two verses, giving the text extra pathos because of the association of boys’ innocence with Christ’s lack of guilt. The third and final section, “The Church repenteth and turneth again” (verses 17-26), uses a double chant formed by a variant of the second chant to which is added a variant of the first. The first discord, at the end of the first quarter, is chillier, more experienced than before, as is the second discord at the end of the third quarter. However, there’s more feel of possible resolution in the cadences of the second and fourth quarters, because of the text’s declaration of penitence and resolve to hope and trust in the Lord. The organ again grows in prominence as the message becomes more positive. The final refrain is largely soft, yet seems more mature as it comes across from WAC as chaste and humble.

I compared the 2014 recording by Jesus College Cambridge Choir/Mark Williams (Signum SIGCD409). Williams treats the piece a little more broadly, timing at 9:03 to O’Donnell’s 8:22. This is an advantage in clarity of expression of the text and the impact of the refrains, but O’Donnell’s more urgent pulse is an advantage in making the piece more dramatic. Jesus College Choir (hereafter JCC) is a mixed one, with sopranos on the top line and a mix of female and male altos. This makes for more beautiful chanting. The dissonance at the end of the first part of the first chant is enjoyed as an exotic feature. The return to p in verse 3 after the mf of verse 2 and the first use of half the choir (here decani) is more marked and intimate than from WAC. The second chant is less stark than WAC’s in its climax but more affecting in its sheer beauty of desolation. The loud verses 6 and 7 lack the huge contrast of the bigger sound of WAC and its organ, but the JCC refrain is stirring and passionate, though it doesn’t taper off quite as well as WAC’s. In the second section JCC’s beauty means less pain is evident than with WAC and the sopranos’ closing verses (15-16), lack the piteous quality of WAC’s trebles’ innocence. But the special atmosphere of the third section is well conveyed by JCC with a clear focus on experience. Their final refrain should be softer, yet is effective as a smiling projection of future happiness. Overall WAC provide a more dramatic experience with more varied organ involvement.

Sir William Harris is first heard on this CD with Bring us, O Lord God, a motet for unaccompanied double choir in the quite rarefied key of D flat major. The text is paraphrased and shaped around the end of a sermon by John Donne preached on 29 February 1628. You can find it in David Colclough (ed.), The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, vol. 3. Lines 575-80 are selectively quoted verbatim. The choirs enter separately at times to repeat and reinforce the text, initially the second choir first, but both choirs regularly enfold one another, mirroring Donne’s constant movement from the diverse variety of this world to the hoped-for stability of heaven. WAC bring to it a serious, gazing quality: a white rather than golden light. It’s assured but less serene than Faire is the heaven heard later. A shiver of darkness is permissible in the Choir 1 trebles’ top G flat, but dazzling is relegated to E flat before “equal light” is confirmed by the descent from G flat to E flat. Choir 1 starts to propose the text and in due course a climactic “equal eternity” on top G natural in Choir 1, this time repeated by Choir 2. The motet’s climax on heaven’s “glory” finds both choirs fusing, with both treble parts on top A flat. The contrast of antiphonal effects follows at “world without end”, words not in Donne’s sermon here, but they allow for a further contrast in a soft parade of Amens and a master stroke in the very final “men” where what looks to be a benign close in B flat returns to the spiritual awe of the opening D flat major. This catches Donne’s wondering perspective exactly, what he terms ‘an Actuall and undeterminable Possession of that Kingdome’ (lines 582-3).

I compared the 2016 recording by New College Oxford Choir/Robert Quinney (Novum NCR 1391) who perform three of the works on the O’Donnell CD under review. Quinney takes a more fervent, rhapsodic approach than O’Donnell, glorying in the text where O’Donnell maintains a reverent distance from it. Quinney’s two choirs appear to incite each other to more ardent expression, the cries of “eternity” reaching to the heavens or at least through the expanse of New College Chapel. O’Donnell gives us more appreciable clarity of Harris’s scoring in a smoothly polished presentation which only really bursts forth at both choirs’ trebles’ climax on “glory”. With Quinney this is just the crown of what we’ve already been experiencing. O’Donnell, however, gives us more contrast in a calmer sequence of Amens. Quinney’s smoulder, like much of the rest, and you feel Donne’s language perpetually does. Yet I find O’Donnell’s final chord more effective because he realizes better the specialty of its pianissimo, a dynamic not heard since the outset and better observed by O’Donnell there too.

Harris’s big work on this CD, Strengthen ye the weak hands, written for a service to commemorate the Science and Art of Healing, is firmly structured yet curiously volatile and highly dramatic. There’s a gentle, pastoral organ introduction, then a solo tenor recitative. As the main body of the work then comes with all the trebles singing the title line you might wonder how necessary the recitative is, except that it’s a foretaste of what’s to follow. It begins temperately enough but soon grows evangelistic in the art of healing as an honouring of God and relating sickness to sin. Come the main body of the piece the concept “Strengthen” is extended to the exhortation “Be strong” to those in fear, to have faith and God will arrive, in the trebles’ top G. The drama is stoked up in the central section, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d” (tr. 5, 2:21), the voices cutting across one another in the incidence of miracles: top G returns for the lame man leaping and the dumb singing. The contrast between uniform yet crisp rhythmic articulation by all voices and variation across individual parts is brilliantly handled and here performed by WAC. And that honouring of the Lord glimpsed in the opening recitative becomes the trebles’ affirmation of “glory” on top A. Back now comes the title theme, yet having gained commitment, at ff rather than p and at times in higher tessitura. And back too comes that organ introduction smoothly lapped by voices on a monotone B singing “will come and save you”. All very chaste and neat, but Harris does better endings than this. The organ is marked solenne, the tempo changes to Adagio, the text to “O Saviour of the world”, sometimes an anthem in its own right, here a coda. The point is that the confidence of zeal can only be fuelled by prayer of an entreaty, and in the final chord also loving, kind.
I compared the 2006 recording by St George’s Chapel Windsor Choir/Timothy Byram-Wigfield (Naxos 8.570148). Timing the piece at 7:47 to O’Donnell’s 6:49, Byram-Wigfield is less fluent in its main body Andante con moto. His choral opening is attractively gentler, continuing the mood of the organ introduction, but once the exhortations begin the trebles’ high notes become, for me, a little over-strident in their committed, full-throated singing, overstepping the fragile boundary between enthusing and hectoring.

Harris’s best-known work is his other double-choir motet, Faire is the heaven, in D flat major like Bring us, O Lord God. There’s an element of restraint, of dignity about it in WAC’s performance, appropriate to the poetic spirituality of the text by Edmund Spenser, yet the harmony in the opening section is also quite warm. A work that springs to mind is another setting of an Elizabethan text, a secular one, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to music, but Harris’s comparably lambent quality comes here thirteen years earlier. It’s written for two choirs who at first serenely reinforce one another as Choir 2 repeats Choir 1’s phrases. But combinations of scoring add richness and subtlety to the tapestry. For instance, a more urgent sequence comes in the central section beginning “Yet farre more faire” (tr. 6, 1:36), at the appearance of the “eternal burning Seraphins” (1:59) first in the tenors and basses of both choirs, their “fiery light” from Choir 2, then Choir 1, then a tutti climax. This section soon features, exultantly and excitingly from WAC, angels and archangels antiphonally dashing to serve God and, as at all such moments of significant statement, all voices involved. Closest to Him are the fairest, demonstrably so in Choir 1’s trebles’ ff top A (3:07), now there is indeed from WAC fiery light bursting out shortly after the beginning of the final section. In this, however, Spenser and Harris have to face the difficulty of expressing the yet greater fairness of God. Spenser can decorously luxuriate in “the image of such endlesse perfectnesse”. Harris lingers softly, more softly over that phrase before Choir 1’s trebles have a forte top A flat on “endlesse” and the spaciousness that has been a key feature of the anthem is clarified by the warm-toned bottom D flat in the Choir 2 bass “perfectnesse”. Robert King’s 2010 edition puts the latter note in brackets, but how good to have it warm-toned here from WAC. I compared the New College Choir/Quinney CD (Novum NCR 1391). Quinney’s opening is less serene: he prefers to be purposefully affirmative in rhythmic and textual articulation. O’Donnell, for me, here more satisfyingly creates a feeling of heaven’s tranquillity and provides a more clearly contrasted central section.

Though all three composers on this Hyperion CD wrote organ music, the sole example is Harris’s Flourish for an Occasion, perhaps owing to its brevity. The occasion isn’t named in the score. Jeremy Dibble in the booklet notes points out 1947 was the year Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were married; that ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey. In the notes for the Signum CD I mention below Jonathan Lilley states the original occasion for which this piece flourished was the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George’s Chapel Windsor where Harris was organist. It begins Maestoso con moto with a mighty ff splash, lots of twirling rising figures in demisemiquavers, a dignified f aftermath and then settles into skipping pedal descents. My preference, however, is for the mf meno mosso, poco sostenuto central section (tr. 7, 1:29) which does find tranquillity in a vast space for which I’m always grateful, a time to observe some delicate tracery and fortify yourself for the next cascade, assuredly approached, of grandiose sonority, before the Herculean scrambling from pedal to manual of a final ascent and closing fanfare. The Abbey’s Sub-organist Peter Holder brings plenty of swagger to the grand aspects, but also a gentler, more poetic manner to the central material. I compared the 2003 recording by Colm Carey on the organ of the Church of the Ascension and St Agnes, Washington, USA (Signum SIGCD508). Timing at 4:57 to Holder’s 5:21, Carey brings more swing to the opening, whose trenchant drive is less majestic than Holder’s. Carey’s clear interrelation of pedal and manual is more fractious, but there’s less dynamic contrast until the central section. In the middle of this Carey adopts a more playful manner, then his following build-up of strength has a hectic quality Holder avoids. Carey is more exciting at the cost of being, for me, too frenetic.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford enters this CD with ‘A Song of Wisdom’, the last of his Six Bible Songs. Sung by all WAC’s trebles, it makes a suitable introduction to Stanford’s attractive lyrical line, allowing the text from Ecclesiasticus chapter 24 to flow, yet allowing emphatic elements and points of contrast to be clear. WAC bring to it forthright confidence, the climactic top B flat at “Come unto me” making its mark, and Peter Holder enjoys the variety of the organ accompaniment in the clearest, finest realization of this I have heard on disc. The opening, skilfully tweaked, becomes a triumphant ending. Stanford wrote the song for solo voice, but it can also be sung by unison voices. You get bolder contrast from the latter, but a more personal expression from the former. I am more moved by the treble soloist Laurence Kilsby recorded in 2009-10 (Delphian DCD 34087) who identifies with the experience of the text more, but sadly there are ragged moments. The piece was originally written for a baritone, but the best performance I’ve heard is that by the tenor John Mark Ainsley recorded in 1996, now only available as a download (Warner Classics 9689542). This has the finest dynamic contrasts, making most clearly the link with the Lieder tradition Dibble points out in the notes of the Hyperion CD under review. Wisdom here becomes a journey of endeavour, to which Ainsley brings almost palpable fervour. Alongside this, WAC’s exultation, while potent, seems comparatively schooled.

Stanford’s ‘O for a closer walk with God’ complements ‘A Song of Wisdom’. It is an arrangement of the tune ‘Caithness’ from the Scottish Psalter of 1635. In 1927 Thomas Dunhill praised Stanford for “the art of fashioning small things with polished grace and exquisite delicacy of touch”. This is an excellent example. The organ accompaniment, using wisps of melody from the song, glides before, during and after the vocal passages like a soothing breeze. Stanford sets three verses from the original five. The trebles sing the tune then the full choir enters with his second verse, “Return, O holy Dove, return!” with a temperate increase of urgency soon followed by a soft explanation and passage of contrition, “I hate the sins that made Thee mourn”. Stanford’s final verse, “So shall my walk be close with God” has soft, staggered entries in the lower parts, as if there’s an awkward, even halting moment of resolution before the path becomes clear and the certainty of the climactic light is realized and then humbly accepted. Unlike most of the items on this CD this anthem can be, and is, sung by small parish church choirs. Nevertheless, the graceful variety in its lyricism is more difficult to convey in performance than it looks on paper. For me WAC flow well but have too much presence and too little reflection, while at the climax, which is only marked forte, the stirring organ accompaniment goes over-the-top. The 2013 recording by King’s College Cambridge Choir/Stephen Cleobury (King’s College Cambridge KGS 0004D) is more judicious in scale, with smoother projection and a more meditative quality, while still displaying the clarity of harmony and variety of part writing that reveal Stanford’s art. I believe that ultimately, in Stanford, lyricism is more significant than drama.

Stanford’s big work on this CD, For lo, I raise up, was completed in 1915 and uses texts from the prophet Habakkuk to inveigh against warmongering by a “bitter and hasty nation” but also set this in a fuller spiritual context. The anthem wasn’t performed until 1939, fifteen years after Stanford’s death, and Dibble’s excellent booklet note points out the piteous aptness of the time of this performance. However, what I’m curious about is why wasn’t it performed till then? Might it be because the emphatic message of the opening section is that guilt rides with all warfare? This Allegretto maestoso has the vigour of a march from WAC’s altos, tenors and basses. I feel the exercise of power is a proper response in the circumstances. If you have sung this piece, as I have, you can’t help being carried away by the sheer excitement of it, not least because the text develops into a tongue-twister. But hang on, this is a march in F minor. The trebles’ first entry, on their own, is “They are terrible” and WAC have a fitting touch of frenzy. The vast Westminster Abbey acoustic and the continual turbulence of the semiquaver flourishes of the mighty organ in Brunnhilde battle-cry mode add colour, yet take away something of the impact of the piece’s sheer animation. The Andante second section in F major, “Art not Thou from everlasting” (tr. 10, 2:23), offers a consolatory eternal spiritual perspective with the fortissimo avowal “We shall not die”. Then follows a solo treble, an individual soul, a finely focussed voice sounding here like a small speck in a vast expanse, humbly petitioning. The Lord’s answer is an Adagio, “The vision is yet for the appointed time” (4:11), be patient, a soft chorus of tenors and basses echoed by even softer trebles and altos, bringing Parsifal to mind. I expect this is also an allusion to the Lord not being in the mighty wind, earthquake or fire but in the still small voice of calm, c.f. Bairstow’s Blessed city, heavenly Salem. The tempo increases for the climax, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” and the WAC trebles become increasingly ecstatic, but in the coda, “But the Lord is in his holy temple”, it’s back to Adagio and an atmosphere of awe needed to create the responsive calm of silence. With WAC you realize the piece is about the contrast between uproar and silence and their differing outcomes.

I compared the New College Choir/Quinney CD (Novum NCR 1391). This recording is closer but still in an ample acoustic, so generally the impact of this performance is more visceral, yet the low voices’ opening here has more of a sense of stolid endeavour where WAC have more swing and impetus. NCC’s trebles’ response is emphatic, but less spiteful than WAC’s, perhaps because there are 13 of them to WAC’s 18, yet the clarity of NCC’s articulation spotlights the withering text. The second section’s change to F major is better contrasted by WAC: what we get from NCC is a heroic lyricism short of WAC’s warmth; crucially the latter’s first trebles have a creamier top G at “We shall not die”. The more perspectived Hyperion recording is an advantage for the solo treble and the choral response which seem intrusively close-up in the Novum recording and the same may be said of the coda. Yet for me NCC’s climax is more riveting because they convey simultaneously its lyricism and its oomph. I think WAC’s lyricism is less apparent because the lower parts are disadvantaged by the greater number of trebles.

The Evening Service in A is the most magnificent of Stanford’s settings. Written for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, it was originally performed by a choir of over 300 voices and an orchestra of 50 players. In the same year Stanford published an adaptation for choir and organ which is the one usually heard and performed on O’ Donnell’s disc. But the original version was recorded in 2012 by The King’s Choir and Consort/Robert King (VIVAT 101). King does use an orchestra of around 50 period instruments but a choir of just 36, only 4 more singers than WAC, though with 12 sopranos, 8 altos (5 female, 3 male), 8 tenors and 8 basses, it is a more smoothly balanced choir than O’Donnell’s. King’s sopranos are smoother, creamier, more worldly than trebles. There’s a more joyful lilt about King’s account as well as the feel of a cavalcade in progress, a smilingly serene light radiance and sense of dance that can be achieved because of the greater density of the orchestral support, while the more dramatic elements are enhanced by its weight. Nevertheless, something of the challenge of human effort and endurance that underpins the text and is clear in O’Donnell’s account seems somewhat glossed over in King’s. This might partly be because O’Donnell takes a more measured view of the Allegro marking of the Magnificat, timing it at 6:27 to King’s 5:56. You examine and consider the text more because O’Donnell does. His opening is one of spirited jubilation: in high tessitura his trebles are cherubic. But the section “He hath shewed strength with his arm” is suddenly stark and more riveting than King’s, the exalting of the humble and meek a mite more tellingly contrasted, and the Maestoso opening of the Gloria has greater breadth. The best of both worlds would be to have King’s orchestra and O’Donnell’s choir.

The Nunc Dimittis is no less memorable with its luxuriant, Brahmsian introduction. Maybe there’s a wisp of Victorian sentimentality here but Stanford, aged only 28, also catches the valedictory mood. Think, this is Simeon reflecting on a very long life, the climax and end of which, as foretold by an angel, comes when the child Christ is presented in the temple and hence his words “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, to which WAC bring a radiant transparency. This moment of fulfilment, Simeon’s and in due course Christ’s, is celebrated in the choir’s “and to be the glory of thy people Israel”, where the trebles leap from E to top A on “glory” and the organ solo reed repeats that motif doubled by the tenors at ‘Israel’, all fortissimo, both blatantly theatrical and unforgettable. In the orchestral version the solo comes from the trumpet, quite naturally, given that in 1876 Stanford had seen the Ring cycle at Bayreuth. However, Stanford’s innovation in this setting is to end with a return to the opening text and close with a further repeat of “in peace”, rendering it a commendation of peace as much as sovereignty. King’s recording shows the introduction to be more effective orchestrated. Its duet of cellos is more gratefully, achingly expressive than the solo organ: think of the slow movement of Brahms’s Double Concerto written 7 years later. The choir reinforces the sense of gratitude and at “which thou hast prepared” is stalked by a gorgeous obbligato oboe solo of the opening choral descending theme, which on the organ (tr. 12, 1:22) sounds to me a touch regretful. That said, it’s WAC’s “to be the glory” that’s more euphoric. Again, O’Donnell, timing the piece at 5:49 to King’s 5:16, gives the text more weight.

The ‘Gloria in excelsis’ which ends this CD was composed by Stanford for the Coronation of George V and comes here in Stanford’s arrangement for organ of the original orchestral accompaniment. Stanford later added other movements to create a complete Festal Communion Service. The Gloria begins Allegro Vivace ma con maesta, i.e. fast yet majestic. It’s bold and jubilant with lots of punch from WAC. You are nevertheless grateful for the relief of the Andante central section, “O Lord God, Lamb of God” (tr. 13, 1:53) with its more intricate scoring of treble soloist and semi-chorus. The soloist Thomas Byrne has a bright, pure voice but it doesn’t carry as well as the treble solo over the chorus in Bairstow’s Blessed city, heavenly Salem. This might be because Stanford’s marking “soprano solo” literally means that or simply that his scoring here isn’t as transparent as Bairstow’s. Interestingly the 1953 Coronation performance which can be accessed on Naxos Music Library uses treble, but at least two. For me the most memorable moment of this piece is the haunting quality of the desperate hope of the tenors and basses’ semi-chorus at “That takest away the sins of the world” (2:14). At “For Thou only art holy” the opening tempo returns and is urgently projected by WAC as the entries of the parts egg each other on. This tempo increase is halted at the first trebles’ top A climax on “Father” (4:33) in a brief spicy modulation to E major and huge organ splash. Every vocal part in turn from bass to treble begins its Amen with an indulgent octave descent, then festoons of crotchets rise and fall, but the final chord is a short crotchet, answered by organ alone with just B flat.

Yes, it’s a bit vulgar, truly for a special occasion. If you’re wondering what it would sound like with 300 voices and full orchestra, Paul McCreesh’s 2018 recording with the Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Players and Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble obliges (Signum SIGCD569). Timing at 5:06 to O’Donnell’s 5:32, McCreesh makes the piece skip along happily. With the luxury of a vast force he can be exuberant without, unlike O’Donnell, needing to be forceful. Organ alone is no match for the blaze of brass colour and Cockaigne-like jocularity of McCreesh’s strings. In the central section, his soprano soloist Rowan Pierce balances beautifully with the semi-chorus, though at the cost of the use of some vibrato not present in Byrne’s treble for O’Donnell. “That takest away the sins of the world” here has an ardent, yet sunny gratitude. At “For Thou only art holy” O’Donnell’s urgency is replaced by a euphoric eagerness. But some effects do come off better with O’Donnell, such as the modulation to E major at “Father”, the voices’ octave descents with their Amens; in both instances McCreesh’s brass somewhat obscures these, while the short final note is more incisive on organ alone.

You might wonder what the connection is between the three composers featured on this CD. Dibble’s notes wisely don’t attempt to make one. But I’ll have a go, prompted by a lovely statement by Kenneth Long in his The Music of the English Church at the end of his survey of Harris: “These anthems are some of the last roses of a very long summer. Splendid though they are, they still show hardly any advance on Stanford.” So, this is a disc of mainstream, conservative Anglican music, yet also of works which have stayed in the repertory as they are cracking good ones. And while I have found other things to enjoy and sometimes prefer in other performances I’ve compared in this review, here too are consistently cracking good performances from WAC with a generous measure of clarity, sensitivity and, where appropriate, drama.

Michael Greenhalgh

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