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.
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD569 [81:18 + 78:03]
Paul McCreesh describes most of the Gabrieli Consort’s projects as a “Labour of Love.” That's certainly true of this one. On Winged Lion, this label which he runs in conjunction with Signum, McCreesh’s historical sensibilities have given us outstanding recordings of classics like the Grande Messe Des Morts and Elijah, but here his search for historical authenticity goes even further. He has collected a selection of the best music from the four 20th century British coronation ceremonies, and “assembled them into a fine liturgical structure.” The result is, self-evidently, an unhistorical pot pourri, but it manages to be a uniquely satisfying journey through and analysis of that ceremony’s place in our national and musical heritage, bringing out the best in McCreesh and his musicians, not to mention the recording team.
The title must surely be a reference back to one of McCreesh and the Gabrieli’s most famous projects, the Venetian Coronation album which recreated the enthronement of a Doge in 1595. This, a typical McCreeshian concept album, was so successful in 1989 that McCreesh remade it on his own Winged Lion label in 2012. The most striking similarity comes at the very opening of the disc: the Venetian album had tried to replicate the whole pageant of the day, both inside and outside the basilica, and this disc begins with a few seconds of the hubbub generated by the waiting crowd within the Abbey, the purpose of which is, of course, to generate some atmosphere and take this a long way from a simple studio recording.
And it’s quite a crowd that McCreesh has at his disposal! Photos in the booklet show hundreds of players and singers crowded under the octagon at Ely, and there is another note to explain that much ambient noise has been left in the recording so as to recreate even more of a sense of atmosphere. Hence we hear the congregation kneeling, and moments like the processions are balanced so that we hear them approach from afar. Furthermore, they have also gone to the trouble of researching and acquiring instruments (especially percussion) that would have been in widespread use in the first half of the twentieth century, thus adding to the authenticity of the recreation.
The opening orchestral/instrumental numbers benefit from the vast space around the recorded sound. The Elgar and Howells marches have a huge amount of air around them, firmly declaring that this is no concert hall. It gives a wonderful sniff of the special to it, before we even consider the music, which is wonderfully performed in Elgar’s Coronation March. Howells’ King’s Herald makes the composer sound most unlike himself, almost like a piece of film music, and it’s remarkable that they manage to make the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 sound so big and yet so detailed. Crown Imperial, the obligatory way to end the discs, benefits from the same combination.
The organ music throughout is brought to life brilliantly by Matthew Martin. The choice of Ely Cathedral as a venue is inspired: its scale recreates that of Westminster Abbey as closely as you could hope for, allowing the congregational hymns to have really massive force to them, and the chameleonic voices of the organ are beautifully full and brilliantly recorded.
There are various levels of choir at work. On one level there is a smaller choir to represent the Choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, while the massed voices of the congregational singing come mostly from the young people and students who make up Gabrieli Roar, the consort’s ambitious (and extensive) choral training programme. The booklet details how they divide up the honours between them, but the achievement as a whole is marvellous, not least from the young people. Many of them write inspirationally in the booklet notes about the impact that participating in such a project has had on them, and McCreesh leads the tributes from the professionals who speak of what a thrill it was to work with the youngsters.
The choir’s sound first floats in from afar in the opening hymn by Howells, which uses Bach’s harmonisation of Luther’s Ein feste Burg, and their chanting is divine in Tallis’ long Litany (bravo to the countertenors in particular, here!). I was Glad, recorded with this many singers - and complete with Vivats, of course - turns into a thriller, particularly as we are treated to the spectacle of the choir approaching from afar. Add in the turbocharged orchestra and fanfares, and you have something that’s worth buying the disc for on its own. There are no spatial effects for Zadok the Priest, but the sound of hundreds of people singing it is still a thrill worth experiencing. Elgar’s O Hearken Thou is contrasting balm, as is Purcell’s exquisitely sung Hear My Prayer. Ernest Bullock’s harmonisation of Veni Creator Spiritus is very effective, and there is excitement in hearing the rarer shorter numbers like Parratt’s Confortare. The unaccompanied items, particularly those surrounding the Homage section, sound wonderful, partly because they're so detailed but also because they have a lot of extra heft about them as befits the splendour of the occasion.
Speaking of splendour, Walton’s Coronation Te Deum is a spectacular highlight, both in the beauty and scale of the sound and the strength of the choir. Stanford’s Coronation Gloria is similar, albeit on a smaller scale, but it definitely helps to have the angelic soprano of Rowan Pierce to crest over the tidal wave of sound.
Incidentally, on top of these vast forces the hymns also have the benefit of an audience who were invited to the cathedral on the first day of recording (23 July), thus increasing the decibel rate even further while still remaining refined and worthy.
The most original thing on the disc comes towards the very end. Instead of an organ improvisation to accompany the monarch’s re-robing for the final procession, David Matthews’ has contributed a reflective orchestral piece which contains snippets of music heard earlier in the service, together with his own arrangement of the National Anthem. I can’t say I loved either, but it’s a neat idea nonetheless, and it’s good to add a new piece to the melange.
The theatrical elements of the disc really come into their own with Simon Russell Beale speaking the words, and playing the part, of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Were it just speaking this might get a bit tiresome, but the words are accompanied by fanfares and other musical embellishments which are most definitely worth hearing, and which would sound a little random without the text.
So this remarkable collection is good to dip into, but even better to experience in one sitting, immersing yourself in the pomp and ceremony in a way that few in this country will have been able to experience since 1953. A hearty bravo to all who participated, and in particular to Paul McCreesh for generating and energising the project as a whole. A most recommendable treat.
Previous review: 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
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
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
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
Orlando Gibbons Threefold Amen
Sir William Walton Coronation Te Deum
David Matthews Recessional and National Anthem
Sir William Walton Coronation March: Crown Imperial