James O’Donnell took up his post as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey in January 2000. He has made numerous recordings over the years with the Abbey’s choir, many of which I’ve heard and admired. Since I received this latest one for review it has been announced that he will leave Westminster Abbey at the end of 2022 to become a Professor in the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. This release shows what a hard act to follow he will be.
The selection of music on this CD features pieces by three British composers who are all prominent in the genre of choral writing. A good number of the works have direct associations with Westminster Abbey.
One work that is not directly linked with the Abbey is Jonathan Dove’s Missa brevis. He was commissioned to write it by the Cathedral Organists’ Association and it was premiered in Wells Cathedral in May 2009 by that cathedral’s choir and their then Director, Matthew Owens. Just a matter of weeks later, Owens and the Wells choir recorded the Mass as part of an all-Dove programme for Hyperion. I was delighted to hear it again in this present performance. All aspects of the setting make a strong impression but the movement which makes the biggest impact is the Gloria. This features thrilling, toccata-like writing for both the choir and the organ. The headlong momentum doesn’t really let up except, very briefly, at the ‘Qui tollis’ section. The Westminster performance is exciting and incisive and, indeed, they give a splendid account of the whole of the Missa brevis.
Vast Ocean of Light is a setting of lines by Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650). As the title suggests, this is music of spaciousness, especially in the long vocal lines, whilst the organ part provides decoration and rhythmic impetus. The piece is both attractive and impressive and Dove’s response to the text is very effective. They Will Rise is the first piece on the programme with a direct link to Westminster Abbey. It was first performed there in July 2018 at a service to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force. Dove used the piece to commemorate an uncle he never knew, who was a member of the crew of a Lancaster bomber killed in action during World War II. The text is a verse from Isaiah and Dove sets the words marvellously. At the start, for example, there is a succession of imposing chords for both choir and organ. As I listened, I had a genuine sense of ‘reach for the skies’. The piece is given a very committed performance and Peter Holder’s playing of the organ part is genuinely exciting.
Judith Weir was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014. She is the first female composer to hold the post; surely, she won’t be the last. It seems to me that the composer who holds this post has a difficult balancing act when it comes to writing pieces for Great Occasions, including church services. They must write music that will make an appeal to what may be a congregation, or audience, with very mixed musical interests—or none at all; yet at the same time they must seek to offer music of genuine worth with no question of ‘dumbing down’. I sat down to write up this review the day after hearing Ms Weir’s new anthem, By Wisdom, which was composed for the special service in St Pauls Cathedral to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. I had the strong impression that this lovely new anthem met the criteria which I’ve just suggested. The three pieces on this CD all have a similar degree of success, I think, even though I’m not sure that all of them were written in Ms Weir’s official capacity.
The True Light was premiered at Westminster Abbey during a service to commemorate the end of World War I. It features a very apt text, compiled from Biblical sources. Weir’s response to the words is very thoughtful; the piece is reflective rather than celebratory. I liked this very much. I also liked His Mercy Endureth Forever. This was composed for another Westminster Abbey service, this time to mark the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. Once again, the text, drawn from Psalm 136 and from the Prayer for Peace, is discerningly chosen and it is set to fine music. Finally comes Truly I Tell You which was first heard, again in the Abbey, at a Commonwealth Day service in 2015. This is cast in a ternary form. In the middle comes a passage which is quite lightly scored for trebles, tenors and organ. This makes a telling contrast with the much fuller textures and harmonies of the outer sections. All three Weir pieces are excellent and they’re very well done by James O’Donnell and his choir.
Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove have made their mark in a number of musical genres. In the case of Matthew Martin, the current Precentor and Director of Music at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, he has, I think, tended to focus much more tightly on organ and choral music. His In the Midst of Thy Temple was commissioned to mark the 750th anniversary of Westminster Abbey. In his valuable notes, Jeremy Dibble correctly describes the piece as ‘challenging’. But it’s also dramatic and very effective. Very fittingly, Martin honours the Westminster Abbey connections of Henry Purcell, weaving into the piece references to Purcell’s tune to which we sing the hymn ‘Christ is made the Sure Foundation’. He does this very cleverly, harmonising the quotations ingeniously. It’s a most interesting piece.
As its title indicates, The Westminster Service was composed for the Abbey choir. Martin wrote it just for the trebles, accompanied by organ. The ‘Magnificat’ is set to invigorating music and I admire the way in which Martin makes adroit use of the decani/cantores division of the choir. The Westminster trebles rise to the music’s challenges. I gather that the markings in the ‘Nunc dimittis’ include ‘gentle;’ and ‘hypnotic’; it’s a very tranquil and lovely setting. Sitivit Anima Mea is the only unaccompanied piece on the programme. This was written for the Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey. The music takes full advantage of the darker hues offered by the three lower voices. An additional pleasure is the plangent sound of altos on the top line.
The remaining two pieces have connections with St Paul’s Cathedral. O Oriens was composed for the cathedral’s Advent service. Martin uses the tune which we sing as ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, which he harmonises most intriguingly. He also employs the plainchant melody associated with the ‘O Oriens’ Advent antiphon. His setting takes into account—and makes use of—the vast acoustic of St Paul’s; the piece gives a great sense of space and atmosphere. Near the end there’s a thrilling eruption from the organ, which is something of a coup. Behold Now, Praise the Lord was written in memory of John Scott, a few months after his untimely and sudden death. As you might expect, therefore, the piece includes a spectacular, virtuoso organ part. It’s a very arresting piece, making much use of sharply irregular rhythms. Fittingly, this piece was first heard in 2017 in St Paul’s Cathedral where John Scott had been Director of Music before moving to New York. On that occasion, the cathedral’s choir combined with their colleagues from both the Abbey and the Cathedral of Westminster; they must have made quite a sound. Here, the Westminster Abbey choir makes a splendid showing and Peter Holder revels in the organ part.
This is a very fine disc indeed. The choir is on top form throughout; clearly James O’Donnell has prepared them thoroughly for the assignment and then conducted them superbly. Peter Holder’s organ playing is marvellous throughout. The recording is excellent. The seasoned team of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have captured the performances thrillingly, with the Abbey’s organ heard in all its splendour but never overwhelming the singers. My only concern is that even when listening though headphones I found the words were not as clear as I’d have liked but that must be down to the reverberant acoustic.
Besides giving further proof of the excellence of the music-making at Westminster Abbey, this disc also confirms that terrific music is being written for the liturgy in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. That in itself is a cause for celebration.