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Hyperion Records

CDA67770 - The Feast of Saint Peter the Apostle at Westminster Abbey
St Peter enthroned as Pope, initial from the Litlyngton Missal (1383/4).
Westminster Abbey Library / Copyright © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Recording details: February 2009
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by David Trendell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2010
DISCID: 13107912
Total duration: 70 minutes 8 seconds

'A sumptuous banquet of choral delight awaits the hungry listener, laid out in three carefully balanced courses, to be savoured slowly, the whole programme sung and played with superlative skill … James O'Donnell, his Westminster musicians and the Hyperion team have produced another jewel of a disc' (Gramophone)

'The choir sounds best in Stanford's quintessentially Anglican Service in B flat and in Walton's The Twelve (1965) to a text by Auden. Its flamboyant organ part and fugal 'Twelve as the winds and the months' finale are intriguin and uplifting' (The Observer)

'This superb CD … now that sung Matins is virtually extinct in all but the most august establishments, Stanford's Te Deum and Jubilate from his B flat Service have become comparative rarities, and they make a terrific impact here, organ and choir combining with exultant, spine-tingling resonance … this is cathedral choral singing at its finest and most inspiring' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This glorious disc from Hyperion, celebrating what the Abbey choir is all about … the centrepiece of the disc is Byrd's glorious Mass for five voices, superbly delivered in a performance of outstanding clarity and sensitivity under James O'Donnell … Dupré adds his gloss to a Bach cantata movement to provide Robert Quinney and the Abbey organ a magnificent showpiece with which to round off this sumptuous musical feast with suitable exuberance … Hyperion's excellent recording perfectly captures the unique atmosphere. It's as good as being there—without the babble of tourists' (International Record Review)

The Feast of Saint Peter the Apostle at Westminster Abbey

Another fascinating collection from Westminster Abbey, recreating a particular liturgical event.

This disc contains music one might hear if visiting the Abbey on its patronal feast, that of St Peter the Apostle, which falls on 29 June. The programme broadly follows 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 pre-Reformation period when the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist (Mass); and Evensong (Evening Prayer). The two principal musical elements are William Byrd’s Mass for five voices, and, linking the morning and evening Offices, four movements from Charles Villiers Stanford’s Service in B flat. Also featured is Walton’s choral masterpiece The Twelve.

The Abbey choir sings with its usual full-throated joy, expertly directed by James O’Donnell.

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This disc contains music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on its patronal feast, that of St Peter the Apostle, which falls on 29 June. The programme broadly follows 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 pre-Reformation period when the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist (Mass); and Evensong (Evening Prayer). The two principal musical elements are William Byrd’s Mass for five voices, and, linking the morning and evening Offices, four movements from Charles Villiers Stanford’s Service in B flat.

The disc begins with a choral fanfare in honour of St Peter: Maurice Duruflé’s Tu es Petrus. One of a set of four motets on Gregorian themes composed in 1960, this concise and direct work, lasting barely one minute, is based on the well-known plainsong antiphon for the feast of St Peter which has provided the source material for many composers over the centuries and which contains the seminal Petrine passage from the Gospel: the words of Jesus to Peter, giving him the responsibility for leading the church. The motet’s rhythmic fluidity derives from the natural ebb and flow of the chant on which it is based, and the composer exploits the tonal and triadic implications of the antiphon to lend harmonic brilliance. The Preces and Responses which follow are by Philip Radcliffe, a distinguished musicologist who for many years was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and lecturer in music at the university. Originally composed for the annual Festival of Music within the Liturgy at Edington, Wiltshire, these are a gentle and effective setting of great warmth and lyricism. The Lord’s Prayer is a particularly beautiful and expressive treatment of these familiar words.

After Henry George Ley’s vibrant chant for Psalm 138, sung as is traditional by the two sides of the choir (decani and cantoris) in alternation, the two canticles for the Office of Matins are the Te Deum and Jubilate from Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Service in B flat. Stanford was one of the most prolific composers of his day and worked in almost every musical genre, from opera to chamber music to symphonies and concertos. He was born into a prosperous Protestant family in Dublin, studied at Cambridge and Leipzig, and later became Professor of Music at Cambridge and Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music. Today he is almost exclusively known for his sacred choral music, which is of a consistently high standard and to this day remains one of the mainstays of the Anglican choral tradition.

The Service in B flat, Op 10, composed in 1879 during Stanford’s tenure as Organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, includes three of the Office canticles for Matins (Te Deum, Benedictus and Jubilate), the Communion Service, and the Evensong canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. As the Stanford scholar Jeremy Dibble has pointed out, this service embodied something quite new; namely, an application of Brahmsian symphonic technique to sacred choral music. This gives the music an unusual degree of structural cohesion and interest that sets it apart from much of the staple diet of church music of the time. The organ also takes on a more important role, no longer merely an accompanist, but a musical protagonist of orchestral character. To extend the symphonic imagery slightly further, Dibble suggests one could think of the Te Deum as a symphonic first movement allegro—confident, massive but with contrasting passages of great delicacy (such as the solo quartet’s ‘We therefore pray thee, help thy servants’), the Jubilate and Magnificat as the scherzo and minuet respectively, and the Nunc dimittis as the slow movement, all being linked by a dignified common setting of the doxology (‘Glory be to the Father’) with its final ‘Dresden’ Amen paying explicit homage to the German tradition. For this recording Robert Quinney has incorporated many of the delightful additional details from Stanford’s subsequent orchestrated version of the Te Deum into the original organ part.

It was only recently established by bibliographical analysis that William Byrd’s three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass—in three, four and five parts—were almost certainly published in the early 1590s, coinciding with Byrd’s move from London to a Catholic enclave in Stondon Massey, Essex. The Mass for five voices, scored for treble (or soprano), alto, two tenors and bass, is thought to have been the last of the three to have been composed, probably in late 1594 or early 1595, and is, by any reckoning, a masterpiece. It is probable that Byrd composed his Latin liturgical music for use in the domestic chapels maintained, often at considerable personal risk, by recusant Catholic families. Here they would probably have been sung by a small group of singers, perhaps one to a part. This does not of course preclude performance by a larger group, as here, and indeed these works have been well established in the choral liturgical repertory since their rediscovery in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unlike most of the Mass-settings of the Continental polyphonists, Byrd’s Masses are not based strictly on a single theme or other unifying material, but rather are freely composed. Many of the movements begin with a similar opening motif, or ‘head motif’, but then go their own way. The Mass for five voices represents something of a distillation of Byrd’s Latin style. It is highly compact and closely argued. The practicalities of liturgical performance in Byrd’s day dictated an economy of style and scale and suggested a restrained, rather than opulent, approach. The vocal texture, constantly varying in scoring, always enables the text to come across with great clarity and closely reflects, and also clarifies, its structure. For example, Byrd adjusts the scoring of each successive invocation of the Agnus Dei; first, three voices are used; then four; finally, all five. In the masterly Credo Byrd seems to place special emphasis on the phrase ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’, which for the Catholic composer undoubtedly had particular resonance.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s celebrated setting of Tu es Petrus serves as the motet for the Eucharist section of this disc. Scored richly for six voices, this work clearly shows the mastery of the great Italian composer. The warmly triadic opening brilliantly contrasts the trio of the upper three voices with the lower. Thereafter the text is set with great brilliance and energy, culminating in the thrillingly emphatic ‘claves regni caelorum’.

Psalm 124 is sung to a strong chant by William Crotch, sometime Organist of Christ Church, Oxford, and first Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from the Service in B flat follow, the latter notable in its scoring for tenor and bass voices only until the Gloria.

William Walton’s The Twelve is one of the relatively few works intended for liturgical use for which both music and text were commissioned together. In this case, the idea arose in 1964 when the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Cuthbert Simpson, invited two of the college’s most celebrated alumni to collaborate on a new anthem. The substantial, eleven-minute work that resulted was first performed in Christ Church Cathedral in May 1965 under the direction of Sydney Watson. The composer had earlier expressed the opinion that W H Auden’s text was ‘obscure and difficult to set’, but in truth Walton frequently had similar problems with texts and often found that inspiration came slowly. Happily in this case he successfully overcame the difficulties, producing a work of exceptional musical and emotional scope and variety that seems to raise its sights rather beyond the world of the church anthem and towards the cantata. Walton also surely does justice to what is generally thought to be a highly imaginative and resourceful poetic text. Among the highpoints are the beautiful central duet, here sung by two trebles (‘O Lord, my God, Though I forsake Thee Forsake me not’), and the exuberant fugal finale (‘Twelve as the winds and the months’). The striking opening passage for solo baritone is typical of Walton’s imaginative writing for solo voices throughout. It also features a notably virtuosic organ part. The composer subsequently orchestrated the anthem for use in the 900th anniversary celebrations of Westminster Abbey in January 1966.

Finally, we hear one of Marcel Dupré’s transcriptions of movements from Bach’s cantatas. Cantata 29 (‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’) was first performed in 1731 at the inaugural ceremony of the Leipzig town council. The brilliant opening Sinfonia is scored for organ obbligato, three trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo, although the work is perhaps better known in its original version as the Preludio of the Partita for solo violin in E major, BWV1006. Dupré’s transcription for solo organ perfectly captures the music’s festivity and dignity, and of course it uses all the potential for colour and drama of a large symphonic instrument. It seems exactly the right note on which to bring this celebration of the feast of St Peter, ‘Prince of the Apostles’, and patron of a great church, to a fitting close.

James O'Donnell © 2010

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