GREGORIAN CHANT: Music of Paradise
The Choir of Buckfast Abbey / Philip Arkwright · Priory PRCD1151
This is a fine recording made in the beautiful abbey church at Buckfast in Devon, part of a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. If you have been there, you will know what a fine setting it is, tucked into the foothills of Dartmoor with the River Dart flowing just a stone’s throw from the abbey church. Music always has been an important part of the monastic liturgy – that’s when the brothers aren’t embroiled in (among other things) the making of tonic wine.
The singers on this recording are not the brothers but a mixed choir of 20 singers. There are 21 hymns mostly drawn from the abbey’s 1934 Antiphonale Monasticum and include some familiar melodies: Conditor alme siderum, A solis ortus cardine, Vexilla Regis, Veni Creator, Pange lingua. If Gregorian chant is your idea of paradise, then this has everything to like; there is an unhurried feel to the singing with some beautiful and sensitive phrasing sung by voices that are well blended. There is also an excellent sound balance: the resonant acoustic of the fine abbey does not swamp the sound. One point to make – the chants do have some variations in melody from those as they appear in our modern-day hymn books. The CD notes point listeners to www.gregorianchant.co.uk to download the melodies used in this recording.
FAVOURITE CATHOLIC HYMNS
Choirs of the Diocese of Leeds · Herald HAVPCD 397
Just so there is no confusion with its Anglican counterpart, this delightful CD has come from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds which claims to have the largest church music programme in the UK involving 2,500 children. There are 43 school choirs plus at least 13 more specialist choirs for boys, girls and mixed voices, as well as a semi-professional adult choir. Along with a couple of adult choirs this CD comprises the crème de la crème: eight different auditioned choirs singing a total of 26 Catholic hymns, including ‘Sweet Sacrament divine’, ‘Daily, daily’, and Bernadette Farrell’s ‘O God you search me and you know me’. There’s real ‘heart’ to the singing from the youngest – Bradford Catholic Junior Choir’s sweet performance of ‘Lord, for tomorrow and its needs’ – to a stirring performance of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ to R.R. Terry’s tune Billing sung by the full choir at Leeds Cathedral. How good too to hear traditional melodies being sung so well by young voices; it gives the lie to the notion that Rihanna (she’s a pop singer) is the only way to inspire the younger generation to sing!
This CD is testament to what can be achieved when proper investment in made in music and given support from the top – there is a foreword from the Bishop of Leeds. Many who mourn the demise and disintegration of music infrastructures over the past 30 years or so will gain inspiration from – and possibly envy at – what there is here. Congratulations to all involved.
A YEAR AT TEWKESBURY ABBEY
Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum / Carleton Etherington and Edward Turner (organ) / Simon Bell · Regent REGCD474
While the Psalms of David (see below) have proved a winning formula for Priory Records, the ‘A year at …’ format seems to be working well for Regent Records under the aegis of Gary Cole. Already there have been recordings in this series from cathedrals such as Winchester, Truro, and Rochester. Now it is Tewkesbury Abbey’s turn. The premise is simple: each CD is a collection of sacred pieces reflecting the church year in each establishment. This collection is sung by the abbey’s Schola Cantorum, which sings the weekday services at the abbey. Despite the economic pressures, thank goodness that this fine ensemble has survived the machinations of the closure of the original choir school ten years ago; the choristers are educated now at Dean Close School nearby. The repertoire is varied with appropriate seasonal music from the church year from Christopher Steel, Bairstow, Tallis, Bruckner, Walton and Tavener among others. Special mention must be given to an energetic performance of Elgar’s Give unto the Lord, and Weelkes’s Alleluia, I heard a voice from heaven. But throughout there is energy and fine singing throughout from the choir of 17 boys’ voices and an able and well-blended ensemble of men’s voices, ably directed by Simon Bell and mostly accompanied by Carleton Etherington at the organ. The repertoire also reflects their commitment to contemporary music with excellent performances of works commissioned by the choir from David Bednall and Matthew Martin, whose splendid Laudate Dominum brings this excellent CD to a fitting close; one can appreciate the sense of ownership of these works. On the basis of this, it would be worth pulling off the M5 to join in their worship.
THE PSALMS OF DAVID
THE COMPLETE PSALMS OF DAVID, SERIES 2
Volume 9, Psalms 119–132 · Choir of Salisbury Cathedral / John Challenger (organ) / David Halls · Priory PRCD1150
Volume 8, Psalms 105–118 · Choir of Worcester Cathedral / Christopher Allsop (organ) / Peter Nardone · Priory PRCD1140
Here are two CDs from the second of Priory Records’ jaunts around British cathedrals recording the entire cycle of psalms; it is a winning formula to turn up and record the results of something that happens day-in, day-out. Of course the series includes those psalms appointed for morning prayer which – with the wiping out of sung weekday matins in cathedrals nowadays – means more unfamiliar texts get heard. (That said, one or two establishments alternate the monthly cycle of appointed psalms for the morning with those set for the evening).
Salisbury has been given all 176 verses of Psalm 119, described in the CD notes as a meditation on the importance of obedience and dedication to God’s law. The chants used here are suitably meditative and appropriately and sensitively sung. Things look up a bit with Psalms 120 to 132, the so-called ‘Songs of Ascent’ – with more joyous chants to match. There is some tidy singing and good ensemble with subtle organ accompaniment using a wide range of tone colours. The recitation of the text though is somewhat pedestrian and there are times when I wished for more speed and flexibility in following the speech rhythm. There are some lovely chants including local produce – for example from Richard Seal and Walter Alcock, former organists at the cathedral, as well as a couple of effective chants from David Halls, the present incumbent; his setting of Psalm 123 is particularly effective.
Worcester has been appointed Psalms 105 to 118, and like Salisbury’s recording there are some splendid chants. The singing on this recording is excellent with crisp diction, well-declaimed texts, a choral ensemble that is hard to beat and a good contrast of dynamics. Like Salisbury the organ accompaniment is effective. There may be more definition in the treble singing here but the boys’ tone from Salisbury is rounder. Once again there are some local chants – notably from Adrian Lucas and Peter Nardone (former and present Directors of Music respectively) but there are ventures further afield – for example, a chant specially for Psalm 114 from Conrad Eden, formerly at Durham Cathedral. His alternating of men and trebles in the central verses (‘Ye mountains that skipped like rams’, etc.) reminds the listener of how much the default musical timbre on both these recordings is predominantly SATB. Of course it could be argued that this is time-honoured tradition reflected by the alternate four-part singing of the verses by decani and cantoris and so on. I still think more variety in colour could have been deployed in both places: men only unison, trebles only, full unison, men only harmony and so on.
If I had to undergo the Desert Island Discs question of the one recording to keep, the decision is difficult, but the Worcester recording must just be force-fed to my own parish choir as an example of energy, purpose and variety in the singing.