Martin Bird
Elgar Society
December 2015

I greeted my last Hyperion disc of English choral music, by the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral under the direction of Andrew Carwood, with less than enthusiasm, lamenting the ‘plodding, almost stentorian, singing … from the men’, and wondering if this was due to the fact that the twelve Vicars Choral of St. Paul’s had been supplemented by thirteen ‘extras’. Well, I can now exonerate those ‘extras’, as some of them are also singing on the present, and, may I say, magnificent, disc from the Choir of Westminster Abbey under James O’Donnell.

Many of us will remember the choir’s performances of Parry’s music from sundry royal weddings and, not least, from the Prince of Wales’s documentary on the composer. And no doubt many of you will remember my expressions of mild regret whenever we are offered his choral music accompanied by an organ rather than an orchestra. But I am happy to suspend my prejudices on this occasion, not least because the programme opens with I was glad in an arrangement for choir, brass, and organ. I was lucky enough, many years ago, to be invited to conduct the music for the wedding of the bandmaster of the Royal Marines in Plymouth—I provided the singers, he a section of the band—and I made a similar arrangement for the occasion, and the memory of wallowing in the resulting sound remains with me. Onyx Brass also participate in Hear my words and the Coronation Te Deum, and a thrilling, overwhelming, sound they make.

But the stars of the show (apart from Hyperion’s recording team, that is), are James O’Donnell and his choir. Elgar was always—and rightly—banging on about singers with brains. Well, here is brainpower in abundance: supreme choral singing, combining beauty and power of tone with a sense of line and direction that comes from an intelligent awareness of what the music is all about. No mere going through the motions here, and the trebles, in particular, display a similar maturity of music thought that belies their young ages. Quite outstanding in every way.