Looking for spiritual consolation in troubled times? Look no further. The Choir of Westminster Abbey could hardly have timed this release any better, coming at a time of lockdown when many of us are considering what really matters in life and looking for something deeper.
Something deeper is definitely what you’ll get here. These masterpieces of the English choral tradition are brought to life by the choir that is that tradition’s very embodiment, and in this recording they sing this music as though it’s their very bread and butter.
The sound of the recording is part of what makes it special. For one thing, using boys' voices makes a massive difference—you definitely wouldn’t mistake these for adult females—and James O’Donnell’s shaping of the sound shows his familiarity with both the music’s shape and the tradition in which the composers were writing. Furthermore, the quality of the recording gives the music and more ethereal, slightly distanced feel. This is contemplation of the divine from a reverent distance, giving the music a spirituality that I found really compelling. The Songs of Farewell, for one thing, sound completely different to what you hear of them in Tenebrae’s (magnificent) recording, which is more closely miked: in this Hyperion recording the spirituality of the music comes out more than the architecture, and that's a perfectly valid way of doing it.
Furthermore, the rich, resonant, spacious acoustic definitely helps. There is an aura around the singing which I find utterly beguiling and entirely suited to the music’s ecclesiastical atmosphere. This music suits the All Hallows acoustic brilliantly, and I kept imagining the singers in the setting of Westminster Abbey, even though I knew they weren't.
The performances themselves are superb. There is focused beauty to the Stanford motets, with a declamatory joy to the second, and the words are admirably clear, which is quite an achievement given the space of the acoustic. The same composer’s Magnificat then has a carolling sense of joy, its clean lines sung with beautiful precision. It becomes more meditative with luscious romantic harmonies, but overall it’s gloriously festive, culminating in a thrilling final Gloria.
The name of Alan Gray, Stanford’s successor as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, was new to me, but his Magnificat here sounds robust and varied, with an angelic treble solo. As a fellow native Ulsterman I’m more familiar with Charles Wood, and his Nunc dimittis sounds gloriously rich, with a soaring final refrain.
It’s the Songs of Farewell that take the major place, though; surely the most touching musical gem to emerge from the carnage of the First World War. Parry the agnostic looks into the life to come, on the threshold of his own death, and commits to music some of the most beautiful meditations on the afterlife that any Englishman has every achieved. The Westminster choir know these inside out, of course, but they sing them here with conviction, clarity and a gorgeous sense of poetic beauty. They also embrace the music’s glorious variety, ranging from the strident vision of judgement that opens ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’, through the weariness of ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ to the ethereal, almost folksy feel of ‘There is an old belief.’ I loved the sense of unfulfilled longing to ‘My soul, there is a country’, and the culmination of ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ brings both acceptance and defiance, surely the composer’s own conflicted approach to his own mortality.
Really, it’s hard to imagine any ecclesiastical choir singing this music any better. I think the closeness and intimacy of Tenebrae’s recording, using adult sopranos, just edges it for me on the Songs of Farewell but, as I mentioned above, the Westminster approach to the music is a completely valid alternative, and I’m very pleased that I live in a musical world where we can have both.