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Vaughan Williams, MacMillan & Tavener: Choral works

Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2023
Total duration: 72 minutes 9 seconds

Cover artwork: Central east window (2000, detail) by Alan Younger (1933-2004)
Henry VII Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey / © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

From established favourites by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir John Tavener, to recent works—including two premiere recordings—by Sir James MacMillan, this is an outstanding programme of choral works with strong musical and historical connections to Westminster Abbey and its celebrated choir.


‘James O’Donnell masterminds an account of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor to rank alongside the finest to have come my way. Not only is his an ideally unforced, lucid conception (the return of the Kyrie theme during the Agnus Dei at the words ‘miserere nobis’ sounding sublimely inevitable here), he also secures singing of effortless poise and heart-warming devotion from his Westminster Abbey colleagues. My goodness, the richness and vigour of RVW’s writing for his four soloists and double choir really does activate the goosebumps, yet there’s mystery and expectant hush aplenty at the heart of the Credo (‘Et incarnatus est’). Memorable, too, are those numinous undulations in the Sanctus, as well as the transcendent beauty of the work’s concluding measures. Set down last year to mark the piece’s centenary, this performance benefits from the ideally glowing acoustic of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, whereas that of O taste and see—the lovely communion anthem that RVW wrote for the coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II, and which opens with his signature phrase from ‘Sine nomine’—was recorded in Westminster Abbey itself … in sum, this classy collection will surely give lasting pleasure. Jeremy Dibble’s eloquent and scholarly annotation is a model of its kind’ (Gramophone)

‘James O’Donnell left Westminster Abbey after 20 years as director of music to take a position at Yale. This, apparently his last recording at the Abbey, sustains the remarkably high standards he and his choir consistently achieved during his tenure … a fine and unmissable farewell by O’Donnell’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘A strong performance [of the Gloria from the Mass in G minor] from the choir of Westminster Abbey conducted by James O’Donnell, and they capture the power and confidence that emerges after the sense of mystery in the opening Kyrie. James MacMillan’s music doesn’t feel out of place between Vaughan Williams and John Tavener, whose Canticles for King’s College Cambridge get the kind of performance that would stay long in the memory if you heard it at evensong. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century additions to this living tradition; excellent sound’ (BBC Record Review)

‘This CD amply demonstrates that James O’Donnell passed on to his successor, Andrew Nethsingha, a choir in peak condition. The singing throughout is highly skilled and strongly committed. It’s a demanding programme which presents the choir with a wide variety of challenges: all these challenges are successfully met. Most of the music is a cappella, meaning that Peter Holder is not often involved. But in A Special Appeal his contribution is nothing less than spectacular. Hyperion have entrusted this project to engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. With such an experienced team dealing with the technical aspects, it’s little surprise that the recordings are excellent. It will be noted that most of the music was recorded not on the choir’s home turf but in the fine acoustic of All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak. The choir sounds equally at home in both venues. This disc closes the James O’Donnell era at Westminster Abbey in considerable style’ (MusicWeb International)

‘Vaughan Williams admirers who buy this disc for the Mass in G minor will find themselves in the company of five other sacred choral works that employ a musical language rather distant from that of the Mass. For this Vaughan Williams admirer, those remaining pieces have turned out to be at least as compelling as the main work, and perhaps even more so … this is as fine a performance [of the Mass in G minor] as any now available. Contrapuntal lines are clearly audible, and the overall balance is exemplary. The choir’s sound has exceptional richness and homogeneity. It dispenses considerable power where necessary and makes the more inward passages alive’ (MusicWeb International)

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With the establishment of musicology as a discipline at the end of the nineteenth century—emerging hand in hand with the publication of scholarly editions such as the Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst (from 1892) and Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich (from 1894), and the instituting of complete editions as part of the ‘musical canon’—a new interest in medieval and Renaissance church music was ignited, especially by the editions of Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria spearheaded by the leading figure of the European Cecilian Movement, Franz Xaver Haberl. Concurrently, in England, a similar fascination was led by such figures as John Stainer, George Ratcliffe Woodward, H E Wooldridge and Charles Wood. A contemporary of Wood’s at Cambridge, Richard Runciman Terry, who for two years was a choral scholar at King’s College, began to discover the beauties of Latin Tudor music after he became a Catholic in 1896. Terry was appointed by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan as the first director of music at the newly constructed Westminster Cathedral, which opened its doors to musical worship in 1903. One of Terry’s prime missions was to sing as much as possible of the golden age of Catholic polyphonic music, and this included as much as he could discover of Byrd and Tallis. But, following the examples of Stanford (a major influence on him during his time at Cambridge), who explored both the old and the new with the Cambridge University Musical Society and the Bach Choir in London, and of other choir directors such as Lionel Benson of the Magpie Minstrels, Terry was keen to commission contemporary works for liturgical use. This spawned a repertoire of Latin music by Stanford (though his Mass settings are lost), Charles Wood, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams.

It was after Vaughan Williams returned from his soldiering in the First World War that Terry commissioned him to write a Mass for the choir. The resulting Mass in G minor was completed in 1921 and dedicated to the composer’s closest friend Gustav Holst ‘and his Whitsuntide Singers’ in Thaxted, Essex. Before it was sung at Westminster, however, it was first performed as a concert piece by the City of Birmingham Choir on 6 December 1922. After its first hearing at Westminster, it soon became an accepted pillar of the repertoire. As Terry once said to the composer: ‘I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.’ Vaughan Williams brought to his score a multiplicity of atavistic influences. Besides the well-tried sixteenth-century elements of imitative counterpoint and modality (as one finds in the Kyrie), the Mass owes much to the spacial dimensions of Venetian antiphony, accentuated by the exchange of music between choir and solo quartet, and one senses a knowledge of already established classics such as Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli in the eight-part writing and double-choir repartee, where the imperative of textural contrast is foremost. It is also possible to detect something of the florid polyphony of the Eton Choirbook in passages such as ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in the Gloria and ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ in the Sanctus, and even of older techniques including sequences of first-inversion chords prevalent in English church music of the early fifteenth century (namely at ‘qui venit in nomine Domine’ in the Benedictus), as one finds in the ‘English manner’ of John Dunstaple. The Credo is an especially powerful example of how these techniques combine with the composer’s contemporary triadic juxtaposition (as heard again at the beginning of the Sanctus) and more arresting harmonic progressions (the passage at ‘et homo factus est’ is one of many remarkable successions of harmony which seem suspended between two historical worlds), juxtaposed with those of a more traditional, functional kind. This is particularly striking in the Agnus Dei, where the cohesion of the Mass is enhanced by a return of the material from the Kyrie (at ‘miserere nobis’).

Taken from Psalm 34: 8, the communion anthem O taste and see was commissioned from Vaughan Williams for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and was first sung at Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953 at the point in the service where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh advanced to the steps of the altar for the administration of bread and wine. A simple, modal miniature, set in G major, the anthem is in two short parts, each headed with the innocent invocation of a haunting solo treble.

All four items by Sir James MacMillan on this recording explore choral writing for forces of up to eight parts with and without accompaniment. The a cappella motet What man is he that feareth the Lord? dates from 2020 and was commissioned by the Lord Burghley 500 Foundation for a Service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. A setting of Psalm 25: 11-12 and Psalm 112: 1-6, the text dwells on the themes of godly living, wisdom and a life of righteousness. Written in a continuous through-composed structure, it falls into three sections. The first is formed around an inverted pedal of C sharp, which gradually expands outwards. A central paragraph led by the trebles’ long expansive melodic line, supported by wordless accompaniment, climbs by degrees to a second climax (‘the generation of the faithful shall be blessed’) before the eight-part texture of the motet begins to build from the lower voices. The return of the C sharp pedal signals a recapitulation of the opening material (‘there ariseth up light’) and it is in this tonal area that the motet tranquilly resolves (‘and the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance’).

MacMillan’s Mass of St Edward the Confessor was commissioned by Thomas and Mia Harding and dedicated to Westminster Abbey Choir School; it is written for unaccompanied choir and was first sung at Westminster Abbey on 29 June 2022 on the Feast of St Peter. It is to date the latest in a line of Mass settings (two of them congregational) by MacMillan, which include the impressive Mass for Westminster Cathedral (2000); an equally challenging work for Durham Cathedral, the Missa Dunelmi (2011); and the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, written for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. In keeping with the tripartite nature of the Kyrie text, the musical structure is a simple ternary one. The Gloria is constructed out of a contrast of two moods—one of rhythmic dynamism, the other of devotional genuflection. This juxtaposition occurs twice, the second time making a special impression with the exceptionally simple genuflection in G and the concluding ‘Amen’ in a hushed E major. Underpinning the more florid Sanctus is a pedal of B which is concluded by an arresting ‘Osanna’, characterized by its striking augmented-fourth progression, G to C sharp. The more tranquil and archaic Benedictus articulates a more functional route from D minor to G major, but this is in turn theatrically contradicted by the return of ‘Osanna’ which, referring back tonally to the Sanctus, finally resolves into B minor at its conclusion. The three statements of the Agnus Dei, made more insistent by their upward shifts, make reference back to the material of the penitential Kyrie, while the response from the solo tenor (‘miserere nobis’) recalls the embellished treble lines of the Sanctus. In an elaborate eight-part reworking of this idea, the movement subsides into B major with the plea for peace.

A special appeal was composed in 2017 and has been described by the composer as ‘a mini sacred opera’ to commemorate Óscar Romero, the Salvadorean prelate who was shot by an assassin while he was celebrating Mass in 1980. On many occasions Romero spoke out on the radio and at Mass in support of the poor and those oppressed by the government. In February 2015, twenty-five years after his death, Romero was declared by Pope Francis to be a martyr, and this paved the way for his beatification in May of that year. He was canonized in October 2018. The manner of the anthem is highly unusual in that it takes the form of an appeal by Archbishop Romero to the army and the military leaders who plotted to kill him. The urgency of this request can be heard in the very first strident gesture of the tenors and basses and in the violent demeanour of the organ. The anthem then proceeds almost like a stream of consciousness as the organ seeks to illustrate each petition from the choir. After a bitonal collision of C sharp major and C major, apostrophizing the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the text shifts to Psalm 31: 13-14 (‘For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”’) to embody Romero’s tragic fate and martyrdom. The anthem concludes with a return to the more clamorous mood of the opening, deploying an aleatoric accumulation of treble voices in combination with a tirade from the lower voices to articulate Romero’s passionate entreaty: ‘In the name of God, then … stop the repression!’

The unaccompanied anthem Who shall separate us?, taken from verses 35, 38 & 39 of chapter 8 of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, was composed during 2011-12. It was specially commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster in preparation for the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on 19 September 2022 and was sung at the end of the service, before the blessing, by the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal under the direction of James O’Donnell. Conceived very much as a solemn prayer and supplication, the anthem’s disposition is one of resonant homophony. Added, at the end, is an ‘Alleluia’ acclamation embarking from F sharp minor, but final resolution comes with the serene affirmation of the anthem’s opening tonality, E major, and the quietude of the ‘Amen’.

Sir John Tavener’s setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ was commissioned by Stephen Cleobury and completed in December 1986 in Katounia, near Limni in Greece. It was first sung in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, on 4 April 1987. Heavily influenced by Russian (and Greek) Orthodoxy to which he converted in 1977 (after a background in Anglicanism), Tavener’s music is full of drones and chant coloured by his experience with the Greek and Russian churches. This is especially true of the Magnificat, which begins with a supporting pedal in the altos and a chant for the trebles. In response to each verse of the canticle, which increases in intensity, scoring and texture, Tavener includes the Orthodox employment of the troparion to the Mother of God (‘Greater in honour than the cherubim’), a musical statement which anchors the piece to D major. Less elaborate chorally than the more effusive Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis is more characteristically focused on Simeon’s solemn prayer of departure.

Song for Athene, sometimes known by its first line of text, ‘Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’, was completed by Tavener on 11 April 1993. Commissioned by the BBC, the work was composed as a tribute to a family friend, Athene Hariades, who was killed in a cycling accident. Hariades, who taught English and drama at the Hellenic College of London, impressed Tavener with her love of acting, music and poetry after he had heard her read Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey. After her tragic death, the composer was moved to write something which combined elements of the Orthodox funeral service with lines from Hamlet. The resulting piece was first published in 1997. The form of the work consists of six monophonic intonations (‘Alleluia’), which shift modally from major to minor, using Orthodox texts which function as introductions to words specially contributed by Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun who lived at the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby. Tavener always considered her his ‘spiritual mother’. The final section of Thekla’s text juxtaposes the solemnity of ‘Weeping at the grave creates the song’, from the Russian kontakion, with the joyous promise of the Resurrection (‘Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you’), before all recedes to the final, seventh intonation. Throughout the entire ‘song’, in true Byzantine fashion, the monophony and choral responses are sustained by a continuous drone (or ‘ison’), anchoring the tonality to F major. Song for Athene has now probably become Tavener’s best-known choral work after it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, on 6 September 1997 in Westminster Abbey under Martin Neary, as her cortège left the Abbey.

Jeremy Dibble © 2023

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