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Hyperion Records

CDA67680 - The Feast of Ascension at Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey (1904) by John Fulleylove (1845-1908)
Mary Evans Picture Library, Blackheath, London
CDA67680

Recording details: June 2007
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: April 2008
Total duration: 66 minutes 9 seconds

'Everything is a joy here, including the modern works, the anthem Viri Galilaei by Patrick Gowers and Francis Pott's brilliant Toccata for organ, played with assured virtuosity by Robert Quinney. The choir of Westminster Abbey under James O'Donnell sing with the happy care which his choristers at the Cathedral used to bring to their work with him' (Gramophone)

'This close-your-eyes and you're there service is almost matter-of-fact in its excellence … it's good to see that English cathedral music is still intact: its future is represented by Francis Pott's Toccata, commandingly played by Robert Quinney, which rounds off a truly feel-good recording for cathedral music fans' (Choir & Organ)

'This addition to Westminster Abbey's invaluable series of music for feast-days gets off to a cracking start with Stanford's magnificent eight-part motet Caelos ascendit hodie. This sets a jubilant tone for the whole programme, which contains some outstanding 20th-century contributions to the Anglican repertoire, including Britten's Festival Te Deum with its exciting organ effects, Finzi's triumphant God is gone up and Patrick Gowers's Viri Galilaei, whose meditative opening leads to a paean of exultation. All these, and Schutz's Der 100. Psalm, are sung with exhilarating panache' (The Daily Telegraph)

'No one does this grand scale of Anglican service music better than Westminster Abbey, and again the performances of this very demanding music are of the highest order … truly a triumphant recording' (American Record Guide)

'The planning is astute … just as cunning is the way some old cathedral favourites nestle alongside more contemporary settings. O clap your hands and God is gone up may be Anglican staples, but they are given fresh and energetic renditions here, while the brief Stanford motet at the start is a most exhilarating introduction. Best of all, perhaps, is Ascension motet Viri Galilaei by Patrick Gowers … this splendid and dramatic setting with its concluding triumphant hymn is further vibrant proof of his sympathetic writing for voices' (International Record Review)

'After seven years at the helm, James O'Donnell has made a formidable singing outfit of the Westminster Abbey Choir … the treble line is robust and thrilling, its soloist, Jacob Ewens, a sinuous star in Britten's Te Deum in E' (The Times)

'Another offering to lift the soul heavenwards from James O'Donnell and his choir, as they continue their exploration of liturgical repertoire across the centuries … the first thing that hits you about the singing is the celebratory tone. The boys might be singing Stanford's Caelos ascendit hodie, but they could just as easily be trilling 'Woohoo! It's Ascension Day!'. I love such musical joie de vivre, and not every choir is able to produce it convincingly as these chaps. It doesn't come at the expense of quality, though; this is Westminster Abbey Choir at their crystalline best, with spot-on pitching, enviable articulation and sympathetic phrasing … it is a stirring, beautifully judged programme of music, performed to the highest standard' (bbc.co.uk)

The Feast of Ascension at Westminster Abbey
Matins
Eucharist
Kyrie  [1'58] LatinEnglish
Evensong

Hyperion is delighted to present this latest CD from The Choir of Westminster Abbey under their inspirational director, James O’Donnell. They continue their exploration of the rich repertoire of the liturgy in its historical context in the Abbey with music for the Feast of the Ascension. Ascension Day is a particular moment of celebration within the annual round of Easter praise and is celebrated in glorious and triumphal language. The works recorded here represent a wide range of the best of liturgical music, starting from the intricate and joyful writing of the sixteenth-century composer Peter Philips and ending with fascinating and appealing pieces by living composers. Along the way are works from the great flowering of English cathedral music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous buildings in the world. It dominates the south side of Parliament Square in the very centre of London, flanking the Palace of Westminster whose architecture it partly inspired. Today the Abbey fulfils several roles. Every year over one million people from all over the world visit it. Many come to see the tombs of the Kings and Queens who over many centuries have been interred here, and to experience for themselves the unique atmosphere of the site of so many coronations, royal funerals and weddings, and countless other historic occasions. Others come to admire the breathtaking Gothic architecture of the church and its beautiful precincts, and to look at the many fascinating memorials to illustrious figures in British life—statesmen, scientists, writers, musicians, explorers, and many others. But what has always given the Abbey its fundamental character, and underpins everything else that happens within it, is its life of prayer and worship dating back to its foundation as a Benedictine monastery over one thousand years ago.

It is thought that a monastic community was established by Saint Dunstan on the present site in about 959. In the mid-eleventh century a new Abbey church was built by King Edward. In the early thirteenth century, reflecting the growing importance of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Henry III added a Lady Chapel, and later built the present Abbey church in the Gothic style, incorporating a new shrine for the remains of Saint Edward, a significant site of pilgrimage. The Lady Chapel had its own pattern of Offices (or services) which took place in parallel with those in the main Abbey church. Later in the thirteenth century the musical practice in the Lady Chapel began to diverge markedly from the plainsong sung by the monks in the Abbey church, and polyphonic music and organ music began to be included. The Abbot appointed a professional musician (rather than a monk) to oversee the Lady Chapel’s music, and, most important, boys from the Abbey’s almonry school were introduced into the Lady Chapel choir for the first time. In this way the seeds of today’s Abbey Choir were sown.

By the time the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 the daily Offices sung by the boys and men of the Lady Chapel choir had been established for many decades. The Abbey’s present choral foundation is provided for in Elizabeth I’s charter of 1560, which established the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster in place of the former monastic structure and granted it the status of a ‘royal peculiar’ (that is, under the immediate authority of the Crown).

Today the Abbey is still governed according to Elizabeth’s collegiate structure and the choral foundation she established exists in much the same form. Over the centuries since the founding charter, some immensely distinguished musicians have been associated with the Abbey, including Orlando Gibbons (Organist 1623–5), Henry Purcell (1679–95), and John Blow (1669–70 and 1695–1708), and it has been the setting for the first performances of countless works, not least those composed specially for coronations and other great occasions by such figures as Handel, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Walton and many others.

This disc contains music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, one of the most important ‘red letter’ days in the Christian calendar, which falls on the Thursday after the sixth Sunday of Eastertide. The programme broadly reflects the structure of the three major choral services of the Anglican tradition, all of which can in turn be traced back to the worship familiar in the monastic era: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist (or Mass); and Evensong (or Evening Prayer).

Matins
The morning service begins with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Caelos ascendit hodie, an exuberant setting for unaccompanied double choir. This is one of three Latin motets composed in 1905 for Alan Gray and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Stanford had been organist from 1873 to 1882. The work opens with the main text given to one choir and the fanfare-like ‘Alleluias’ to the other; thereafter the patterns become less regular, culminating in a splendid final ‘Amen’ that expands from a unison middle E. Stanford’s ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Henry Purcell’s grave.

The Preces and Responses are by Bernard Rose, who for many years was Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford. In addition to his influential work as a choir trainer, he was a scholar and editor of Tudor church music. His tuneful and attractive responses are a mainstay of the Anglican choral repertory. The treble line of the choral response ‘And make thy chosen people joyful’ quotes the chimes of the Magdalen College clock.

In monastic tradition the Psalter formed the core of the daily Offices and the monks sang all 150 Psalms during the course of every week. The Anglican reformers spread the Psalter over a monthly cycle, although ‘proper’ Psalms are allocated to certain festivals. For this occasion Psalm 24 is sung to a strong chant by Sir Joseph Barnby, sometime Precentor of Eton College and finally Principal of the Guildhall School of Music. As is traditional, the two sides of the choir, decani and cantoris, sing much of the Psalm in alternation. In this instance the trebles alone pose the rhetorical question ‘Who is the King of glory’, giving greater effect to the response.

The Te Deum follows. This great hymn of praise is one of the four canticles prescribed (two are sung at any given Matins), and has attracted the imagination of many composers. Benjamin Britten wrote two settings. This Festival Te Deum was composed in 1944 for the choir of St Mark’s Church, Swindon. The opening section ‘We praise thee, O God’ creates an almost trance-like, unworldly effect as the unison voices sing in apparently free time against strictly regular organ chords decorated with pseudo-Baroque ornaments. At ‘Thou art the King of glory’ the music abruptly changes character; now it is driving and rhythmic and the organ part kinetic. The trebles reach a climactic high B at ‘in glory everlasting’, and then the music quickly subsides into the dreamy atmosphere of the opening. The next few lines of the text are taken by a treble soloist, who briefly re-emerges at the very end (‘let me never be confounded’) to bring the canticle to a serene conclusion.

Psalm 100, Jubilate Deo, forms the usual companion to Te Deum. This recording presents Heinrich Schütz’s German setting from his great collection Psalmen Davids (published in 1619), scored for two four-voice choirs and continuo. The joyfulness of the text comes over in playful exchanges between the two choirs, although the calmer central section shows something of the range of the composer’s more expressive powers and responsiveness to text.

The Office of Matins concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Psalm-anthem O clap your hands. The composer writes for the voices as he might for brass ensemble; the opening trumpet call is imitated exactly in the first treble phrase, and the choir typically sings homophonically in rhythmic double triads. A moment of stillness and mysticism comes at ‘For God is the King of all the earth’, after which the music takes off and accelerates back to, and then beyond, its opening tempo, ending thrillingly.

Eucharist
Sir William Walton, born in Oldham, became familiar with the sacred choral repertory as a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, a formative musical experience which stayed with him throughout his life. He was never a fluent or facile composer, and wrote relatively little church music, but much of his choral output is of high quality and importance. He was commissioned to write music for two successive coronations and was knighted in 1951. The Missa brevis, commissioned for the choir of Coventry Cathedral, dates from 1965. The composer described it as ‘very brevis’, and indeed it is a notably compact work, expressly designed for liturgical use. The setting is unaccompanied until the Gloria, which comes last in the pattern of the Book of Common Prayer. The first three movements are rather austere in feel, but the Benedictus opens up at ‘Hosanna in the highest’ into a more opulent style. The Gloria starts with a quintessentially Waltonian burst of energy as the organ makes its surprise first appearance. There is an expressive treble solo in the centre before the closing choral section ‘For thou only art Holy’.

Gerald Finzi’s God is gone up brings the Eucharist for Ascension Day to an exhilarating conclusion. It was composed in 1951 for the annual Festival of St Cecilia Service in London, and members of The Choir of Westminster Abbey took part in its first performance. The composer matches Edward Taylor’s vividly poetic text with suitably dramatic and evocative music, ranging from the magisterial power of the opening trumpet fanfares to the swirling celestial fantasy of the gentler central passage (‘Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly’).

Evensong
The evening Office begins with Peter Philips’s most celebrated anthem Ascendit Deus as an introit. Philips was one of several Catholic composers who left England in the late sixteenth century in order to lead a more secure professional and spiritual life. He settled in Antwerp and Brussels and was famous throughout the Netherlands as an organist. He composed a large collection of five-voice Sacrae cantiones from which the present work is taken. Philips favours the brilliance of a double-treble part which particularly suits the joyful text of this anthem. The rhythmic writing (‘in voce tubae’ and ‘Alleluia’) is especially lively and intricate.

Following Psalm 93, sung to a strong single chant by Sir George Macfarren, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are William Walton’s settings composed in 1974 for Dean Walter Hussey in celebration of Chichester Cathedral’s 900th anniversary. Walton wrote that he had had trouble finding much inspiration in these famous texts (apparently a common problem for him when it came to composing church music). However, he managed to produce a strong and attractive setting of characteristic rhythmic energy and rhetorical effect. There are some strikingly dramatic moments, such as the daring ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ in which Walton’s bold treatment of the word ‘scattered’ and the unexpected, almost theatrical rest before the word ‘hearts’ perhaps reveal a composer anxious to bring familiar words into new and exciting life. The Nunc dimittis begins with a bass solo, perhaps representing the aged Simeon in the Temple in its world-weary, sarabande-like tread; after this, the entry of the full choir at ‘To be a light’ is electrifying.

The contemporary English composer Patrick Gowers is best known for his music for television and films, but his large output also contains several sacred choral works, of which the Ascensiontide anthem Viri Galilaei is the best known. Gowers paints a vividly dramatic and emotional picture of the Ascension of Jesus: one can almost visualize the scene as the dumbfounded apostles gaze up in amazement while high-pitched swirling organ figurations and ethereal overlapping choral ‘Alleluias’ convey the literal other-worldliness of what they are witnessing. Gradually the chordal writing for the choir assumes a more solid, less disembodied character, and the music becomes punchier and more rhythmic (‘God is gone up with a merry noise’). The build-up continues inexorably, leading to a thrilling glissando on the full organ and an elated verse of Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascension hymn ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’, underpinned by a jazzy, propulsive organ part and dramatically interspersed with forceful ‘Alleluias’ and the swirling organ figurations heard at the start, but now louder and more prominent. After this, the music gradually subsides into the mystical mood of the opening and eventually disappears into nothing.

Francis Pott’s Toccata was written shortly after the completion of his giant Passion Symphony for organ, Christus, with which it shares certain features. As in many sections of the (much) longer work, Pott’s characteristic use of additive rhythms and primary-colour harmony is very much in evidence. The Toccata begins after a brief introduction in which the lyrical second theme is first heard. Later, after an initially hesitant recapitulation of the main figure, the lyrical theme is transferred, fortissimo, to the pedals as the piece reaches its climax. The opening flourish returns and settles, after a triumphant fanfare, onto a blazing chord of F sharp major.

James O'Donnell © 2008


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