CDs, December 2015


Choir of Durham Cathedral / Francesca Massey and David Ratnanayagam (organ) / James Lancelot · Priory PRCD1126
Boy Choristers and Lay Vicars of Salisbury Cathedral / John Challenger (organ) / David Halls · Priory PRCD1118
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge / Stephen Cleobury · King’s College Cambridge KGS0011

Three contrasting evensong recordings have winged my way from Durham, Salisbury and King’s Cambridge. The Durham contribution is the entire office of choral evensong as might be heard in the cathedral on Easter Day. Salisbury has themed a service loosely around the themes of ‘light’ and ‘living stones’, while King’s has assembled live recordings from services during the 2013–14 academic year.
Durham’s CD is suitably festive, made up of pieces that have a link with the cathedral. The Easter Acclamation by Conrad Eden (a former organist who retired in the mid-1970s) makes for a good joyous start – after Howells’s D flat Rhapsody. There is a high proportion of contemporary music here, with Michael Berkeley’s setting of First the sun and then the shadow – words by Rowan Williams – commissioned by the cathedral. John Casken’s Evening Canticles were commissioned to mark the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north of England. By contrast we are treated to a splendid performance of S.S. Wesley’s Blessed be the God the Father, with particularly assured singing from the treble soloist Nicholas Simper. This CD is good to listen to, with confident, tuneful singing and firm accompaniment from organists Francesca Massey and David Ratnanayagam, though it is perhaps a more challenging experience for those with traditional tastes. Under James Lancelot’s direction, the music at Durham has gone from strength to strength with the girls taking (on this occasion) the lion’s share of the treble singing.
Comparatively traditional fare comes from Salisbury with a more timeless service sung by boy choristers and lay vicars, including music by Walter Alcock, a former organist of the cathedral. There is some spirited singing here – in particular in Sumsion’s setting in G of the Te Deum. Although the performance of Elgar’s Light of the World is able and competent, the Sumsion has more energy and engagement. Being local product, Walter Alcock’s Evening Canticles in A also have that same elan.
And finally, to King’s College Chapel, Cambridge for Evensong Live 2015, and a collection of anthems recorded during actual services rather than in a series of recording sessions. From the outset, there’s no mistake about the choir and setting. The programme is varied, from – at one end of the spectrum – a superb men’s voices performance of Tallis’s Loquebantur and Parson’s Ave Maria, to the Magnificat by Giles Swayne and Gorecki’s Totus Tuus. There are also large scale works by Poulenc, Mendelssohn, Parry and Vaughan Williams. Of course with recordings of live performances you’re going to hear coughs, creaks and other noises but that doesn’t take away from the sense of immediacy and extra je ne sais quoi that can be absent from bespoke performances to a recording machine; everyone is on their mettle. Mention must be made of Tom Etheridge’s superb performance of Alain’s Litanies with the final chord resonating around this hallowed space for a full 23 seconds.
If there’s one general criticism of these CDs, it’s the lack of variety in the hymns. For example, Salisbury sings all six verses of ‘Bright the vision’ to Redhead’s tune – all verses are SATB except for the last verse in unison: there’s no trace of a descant. The same goes for the hymn singing in Durham’s service.
Each of these CDs is a fair reflection of the venue, and choral evensong is alive and well. The inclusion of new works, particularly on the Durham CD, gives the lie to any claims that cathedrals are not commissioning new music. In each place these CDs should certainly fly off the shelves in their respective bookshops.
Stuart Robinson


BENEDICTA: Marian chant from Norcia
The Monks of Norcia · Decca (Universal Music) 4811733
If you ever feel the need to lie down in a darkened room with a glass of something restorative (about which more anon) after a hard day’s work at the office, keyboard or whatever, then here is a perfect musical offering to soothe your frazzled mind. This is a collection of 30 different pieces of plainsong, the common thread being the fact that they (in the words of the CD blurb) ‘meditate on the life of the person closest to our Lord, his mother Mary’. Many of the responsories, antiphons and hymns have been chosen because they have rarely featured on other CD recordings of Gregorian chant. This is an excellent sequence, beautifully sung and recorded (and at number 1 in the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart for seven weeks at the time of writing), but apart from a recording of the Basilica Bells on track one, the texture throughout is the same and rather akin to ‘slow television’. There could be more information about this Benedictine community in the CD notes, but after some internet surfing I can reveal there are about 20 brothers – mostly from the USA, and that they are situated in the shadow of the Sybilline mountains about three hours’ drive north of Rome. When they are not singing, day in, day out, they are brewing beer – Birra Nursia – using a method from Trappist monks based in Belgium. Sadly the CMQ budget has ruled out a pilgrimage to sample it on your behalf, so this CD will have to suffice.
Stuart Robinson


Choir of Westminster Abbey / Onyx Brass / Daniel Cook (organ) / James O’Donnell · Hyperion CDA 68089
Already this CD has been favourably reviewed by the leading music industry magazines, though there was much mirth on social media during the summer over a lengthy public comment on an online shopping website that there wasn’t enough 32 foot sound from the organ. Rest assured, there is grandeur and 32 foot sound here in spades. Parry’s noble writing befits the majestic setting of the ‘Royal Peculiar’ that is Westminster Abbey, and vice versa; the minstrels collected here – brass, singers and organist – engagingly reflect both the nobility of the music and the majesty of the setting. As far as Parry repertoire is concerned, most of the key suspects are here, beginning with the wonderfully distinctive Coronation anthem I was glad, recorded here with Vivats, followed by a similarly splendid performance of Blest pair of sirens. After all that grandeur, we are treated to a beautifully tender airing of Dear Lord and Father of mankind in the arrangement by Herbert Arthur Chambers who introduced a new musical idea to the inner verses. One pleasant surprise on this CD is the performance of Hear my words, ye people in an arrangement for brass by Grayston Ives. Jerusalem and the Coronation Te Deum and the Great Service are among the other works here.
Westminster Abbey is not the most resonant place to record in, but the Hyperion team has achieved a good balance, though on a couple of occasions the choir is rather recessed in the splendid mix of brass and Abbey organ. With Jeremy Dibble’s knowledgeable and authoritative notes, this is a fine CD to play again and again.
Stuart Robinson