The Choir of Westminster Abbey; Daniel Cook, organ; James O’Donnell, conductor
Finzi: My lovely one; God is gone up; Welcome sweet and sacred feast; Let us now praise famous men; Lo, the full, final sacrifice; Magnificat.
Bax: I sing of a maiden that is makeless; This worldes joie.
Ireland: Greater love hath no man; Ex ore innocentium; Te Deum in F.
Several elements are striking in this very welcome recording which includes several of Finzi’s most significant choral works, and his most significant writing for the Anglican church. Most striking is the sheer musicality of the performances. Atmosphere, intensity and often musical exuberance are hallmarks of the disc. This is attributable in no small measure to James O’Donnell’s masterly control of structure, even in the shortest of pieces. These are sung, not as ‘mere’ service anthems from the repertoire, but with each work treated with musical integrity, shaped and phrased compellingly. This benefits several of the shorter, less familiar Finzi works in particular. Let us now praise famous men is a work whose composition for men’s voices and organ makes it less regularly heard than most of Finzi’s choral output. It is good to hear such a well-crafted performance. The starting point for all performances is the text, as treated by the composer, and the disc contains a fine array of texts, particularly in the Finzi pieces. The choir is simply one of the best around today and puts its skill fully at the service of the music. This bears greater scrutiny. In the case of several works on the disc, such as Finzi’s Magnifcat and the Bax pieces, the original singers envisaged for the top line were female, and were so in early performances. Hearing them sung by boys’ voices presents a different context. The boys rise to the challenges posed brilliantly, both in terms of musicality and technique. Their tone is robust but shows sensitivity. Above all, their voices give clarity to some highly complex textures without reducing the sound to the straightjacketed tone which is currently the fashion in some professional chamber choirs. The sound then comes fully into its own in works such as Lo, the full, final sacrifice, written for the boys’ choir of that immense well of artistic patronage, St Matthew’s Northampton, when under the care of Walter Hussey. The frequent passages in thirds which Finzi often writes for top lines have particular clarity in this recording and the boys negotiate Finzi’s upwardly leaping melodic lines effortlessly. Turning to the adult voices, another key strength of this recording is revealed. Westminster Abbey boasts immeasurable riches in the ‘back rows’, made up of singers who are foremost in their field as choral singers, often members of the many other professional groups in London. This cannot be underrated for its impact (listen, for example, to the solo bass in Ireland’s Greater Love). Exposed lines for, say tenors or basses, are always rich in sound, effortless,and fluently and instinctively phrased. (There is perhaps one moment of alto over-exuberance mid-Magnificat, but that can be forgiven). The high-quality singing of these voices also has impact on the sound of chordal passages. These benefit from a richness in the lower parts, including the altos, that only well-controlled mature voices can bring, creating balanced but highly resonant singing, particularly notable in the chromatic chordal challenges of Bax’s very fine I sing of a maiden. The imitative entries towards the end of this piece show all vocal parts off to their very best. The slow build-up of ‘All we shall die’ in This worldes joie benefits particularly from the even quality throughout all parts, as well as impressively sustained long phrases. One can only regret slightly the absence of Bax’s Mater orafilium from the disc as it would have been good to hear this fine choir in that most demanding example of twentieth-century English choral writing. Atmosphere is to the fore throughout the disc, aided probably by the fact that most can picture the surroundings in which the recording was made; and devoid of tourists! A key element of creating the atmosphere is the sound of the Abbey organ, superbly played by Daniel Cook. Placing Finzi’s My lovely one at the head of the disc creates an attractive sense of the vast spaces of the Abbey in its subdued mood. The organ introduction to God is gone up makes a dynamic contrast. It might initially lead the listener to look round for a royal procession, but the fulsome brass fanfares on this organ are entirely at one with the performance here. There is a majesty in this version of Finzi’s Ascension anthem which entirely suits the text and which can too often be missing in other performances. Perhaps one of the things that Finzi might have appreciated in the performances on this disc is the primacy of the text, to which the ear is directed time and again. Sometimes the resonant acoustic makes demands in terms of clarity but the sense of the poetry, the genre of many of the texts set here, is always foremost in a series of fulfilling performance