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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Motets, Op 38 [8:55]
Alan GRAY (1855-1935)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F minor [8:05]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD
Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat, p 164 [12:37]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926)
Nunc dimittis in b flat [3:17]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Songs of Farewell [31:49]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. 2019, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA68301 [64:45]

Since the inauguration of their series of recordings entitled the Westminster Abbey Collection, James O’Donnell and the choir of Westminster Abbey have recorded many of the great works of the Anglican choral tradition. This disc, which features Parry’s Songs of Farewell, is built around several features: all the works are a capella, most are written for double choir (SATB/SATB), and all except the Parry have a Cambridge connection.

The Three Motets Op. 38 (originally entitled “Introits”) are among Stanford’s most popular choral works and have been recorded many times. O’Donnell’s rendition of the first, Justorum animae (The souls of the righteous) is a little slow but has beautiful interweaving of the contrapuntal lines and the choir’s diction is splendid. Coelos ascendit hodie (Today has gone up) is also well-done but the last motet Beati quorum via (Blessed are they…) sounds rougher than its predecessors, although the lines are clear and O’Donnell produces a perfect version of the famous final cadence.

Stanford retired as Organist of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1893 and was succeeded by Alan Gray, who stayed in the position until 1930. He is best-known for his anthem What are these that glow from afar and for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis recorded here. The performance of the Magnificat is powerful, but a little shrill, although O’Donnell highlights Gray’s skillful use of the double choir and there is a beautiful solo by George Purves. More impressive is the Nunc Dimittis where O’Donnell again shows off the potentiality of the double choir, especially in “…to be a light to lighten the Gentiles” (p. 3).

The Magnificat Op. 164 comes from 1918, many years after Stanford had written the Op. 38 motets. As Jeremy Dibble points out in his excellent notes Stanford had a major falling out with Parry in 1917 and although things were mostly patched up, Stanford wished to make amends with a setting of the Magnificat, which Parry himself had set in 1897. Unfortunately, Parry died before he could see the work and so the Magnificat emerged as a memorial rather than a tribute. I have always found the work a little dry, but this performance at least partially reconciled me to it. In spite of a tendency to rush at first, O’Donnell slows down very effectively at the section “quia fecit” (p. 13) and from there to the end produces a splendid performance, with wonderful ethereal effects towards the end.

Wood’s well-known Nunc Dimittis in B-flat is aptly placed between the big Stanford and Parry works. In some ways this is the highlight of the disc as O’Donnell succeeds admirably in bringing out the warmth and serenity found in this piece, as in so many other of Wood’s canticle settings, and the Gloria especially, is as calm and quiet as it should be. Nb. Stanford was Professor of Music at Cambridge from 1887 to his death in 1924 and was then succeeded by Wood, who had been in Stanford’s shadow for much of his career. Unfortunately, Wood died only two years later, in his sixtieth year.

As Jeremy Dibble points out in his notes, and in greater detail in his book on Parry, the composer feared that he would not outlive the biblical “three-score and ten” and at about the age of sixty-five began to contemplate a series of unaccompanied valedictory motets. The series, eventually entitled Songs of Farewell, was actually written in 1914-15. The first two motets are for four voices and Parry then adds a voice in each motet, ending with double choir in “Lord let me now my end”. O’Donnell handles the group as a whole in a rather broad manner but leaves space for individual details. This is well-demonstrated in “My soul, there is a country” and “I know that my soul…”. Under O’Donnell’s direction the choir takes the first in a gentle fashion with the second in a somewhat anxious manner, well-brought out by the inner voices. Even better is “Never weather-beaten sail”-beautifully paced, with lines perfectly drawn out. O’Donnell’s rendering of the six-part “There is an old belief” is rather strident, but he makes up for this with his treatment of the dissonances later in the piece. Donne’s famous poem “At the round earth’s imagined corners” elicits the finest of the performances of the motets. The bell-like sonorities at the beginning thin out to an ethereal slowness (p. 3)-a beautiful moment whose effect continues right to the end of the piece. Equally fine is the pacing and voicing of “Lord let me know my end”, providing a fine summing up of the whole cycle.

Despite the overall excellence of the performances on this disc, it will rise or fall for listeners on the Songs of Farewell. My favorite for the motets had been the set with the Choir of Exeter College, Oxford conducted by George de Voil [review ~ review] but this set lacks “Lord let me know my end”. Comparing the Westminster Abbey disc with the accounts by de Voil, the highly-regarded disc by Tenebrae under Nigel Short [review], and the old Christopher Robinson recording on Hyperion, I would say that O’Donnell’s version of the Parry is the standout, and that the other pieces, especially the Wood, make this an excellent disc overall and a worthy addition to the Westminster Abbey discography.

William Kreindler

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Simon Thompson

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