Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor (1921)
O taste and see (1953)
Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959)
What man is he that feareth the Lord? (2020)
Mass of St Edward the Confessor (2022)
A Special Appeal (2017)
Who shall separate us? (2011-2012)
Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ (1987)
Song for Athene (1993)
Peter Holder (organ), The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. 2022, Westminster Abbey; All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London, UK
Texts included
Hyperion CDA68420 [72]

At Christmas 2022 James O’Donnell stepped down as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey to take up a prestigious post at Yale University. He had been at the Abbey since 2000; he was the first Catholic to hold the post in post-Reformation times, I believe. He has what I think is the rare distinction of presiding over the music successively at both of the principal churches in Westminster; before moving to the Abbey, he had been Assistant Master of the Music (1982-88) and Master of the Music (1988-2000) at the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. With both of the Westminster choirs he assembled a significant discography for Hyperion but, sadly, this is the last of these albums.

The programme that O’Donnell has put together for this final CD is a most appetising proposition. Many of the works have very specific connections with Westminster and the programme includes two premiere recordings.

Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor is inextricably linked to Westminster Cathedral. VW wrote it at the invitation of Richard Terry as part of Terry’s drive to enrich the repertoire of the choir that he had established at the cathedral. The present performance is a marvellous one. The Kyrie blossoms most atmospherically in the resonant acoustic of All Hallows’, Gospel Oak. I love to hear this masterpiece sung by an SATB choir but it should not be forgotten that an all-male choir, such as today’s Westminster Abbey choir, would have been exactly what Terry had at his disposal; in other words, VW conceived it with such a sound in mind. In the Gloria and Credo, the division between main choir and smaller second choir really tells; in addition, here and elsewhere, there is a lot of fine solo singing to admire. (Interestingly, O’Donnell doesn’t use the same quartet throughout; a number of singers are deployed and all do well.) There’s a particularly arresting passage in the Credo, starting at ‘Et incarnatus est’ (soloists) followed by awestruck soft chords for the choir at ‘Et homo factus est’; O’Donnell’s choir sings this passage memorably. The performance of the music from ‘Et resurrexit’ to the end of the movement is really stirring. The Benedictus is as tranquil as you could wish, with beautiful solo work. In the Agnus Dei the differentiation between the various strands of VWs scoring – soloists, main choir, smaller choir – comes over very well. Over the years I’ve heard many fine recordings of this timeless masterpiece; this is as good as any that has come my way.

O taste and see is a Westminster Abbey piece. It was composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 2 June 1953. This recording was made in the Abbey on 27 June 2022, just over, by a few days, 49 years after the first performance in the same church. VW’s little gem of a piece is caringly performed and I enjoyed the treble solo sung with pure, true tone by James Tweedie

James MacMillan composed What man is he that feareth the Lord?  for a special service in the Abbey in 2020. It’s a fine and expressive piece for SSAATTBB choir in which MacMillan sets verses from Psalms 25 and 112. This is the first recording of the piece; both work and performance impressed me strongly.

The Mass of St Edward the Confessor, also receiving its premiere recording, was written for the Abbey choir and was first performed by them in 2022; the recording was made about a week before the setting was unveiled in public. The title of the Mass is fitting because Edward the Confessor (c1003 – 1066) was the founder of the original church on the site of today’s Westminster Abbey. This Mass is also for SSAATTBB choir. It’s a highly effective work. My ear was caught by the arresting music that MacMillan writes for the ‘Christe’ section of the Kyrie. In his booklet notes Jeremy Dibble has a most felicitous description of the Gloria: he says that the music presents two contrasting moods, which he characterises as “one of rhythmic dynamism, the other of devotional genuflection”.  The Abbey choir is equally successful in both styles but I much admired their punchy delivery of the vibrant, fast music. It seems to me that, here and elsewhere, MacMillan is as responsive to the words he is setting as VW was in his G minor Mass. The performance of the Gloria is distinguished by marvellously disciplined singing. MacMillan did not set the Credo on this occasion. The Sanctus is flamboyant and exciting while the Benedictus provides welcome contrast; the ‘Hosanna’ is thrillingly set – and sung. The Agnus Dei is deeply expressive, not least the florid tenor solos. This is a very fine setting of the Mass and I’m delighted that James O’Donnell got the chance to record it before leaving Westminster Abbey.

A Special Appeal is a remarkable work. This too is for SSAATTBB chorus with the addition of a solo tenor (heard briefly at the start). Crucially, the work includes an organ part of huge dimensions. The piece was written to commemorate Archbishop Óscar Romero (1917-1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was fearless in his denunciation of the violence with which El Salvador was plagued in the years before his death He was murdered while celebrating Mass in his cathedral. Subsequently, Romero was declared a martyr and was canonised in 2018.  MacMillan takes as his text some of Romero’s own words, addressed to the Salvadorean army and its leaders; these are combined with verses from Psalm 31. To describe the music as searingly dramatic risks understatement. The words fairly leap off the page, especially when sung with the intensity that the Abbey choir achieves here. The organ part is viscerally exciting and Peter Holder gives a stunning account of it. The music is complex and highly challenging to the performers. The piece should surely confront the listener and that’s what happens here in a performance that is absolutely compelling.

Who shall separate us? was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey in 2011 in preparation for the day when the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II would take place in the Abbey. The music was heard at the state funeral in September 2022 when I recall that it made a strong impression on me. Macmillan set famous lines from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’) Though written for a funeral, the music is affirmative in nature – rightly so – and culminates in ecstatic music for the repeated word ‘Alleluia’ before the piece achieves a quiet ‘Amen’.

One of the few items on this programme which does not have a specific Westminster connection is John Tavener’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’. As the title implies, these canticles were written for King’s College, Cambridge. Tavener’s great inspiration was to combine the traditional English words, used for centuries in the Anglican church, with music heavily influenced by the music of the Orthodox church, of which he had become a member in 1977. Into the text of the Magnificat Tavener inserts on several occasions the Orthodox troparion in honour of the Mother of God (‘Greater in honour than the cherubim…’) Though the troparion music is repeated several times I think I’m right in saying that it’s always scored in different ways. The Magnificat text itself is set to chant-like music, underpinned (or perhaps surrounded would be a more accurate description) by vocal drones. It’s hugely effective. The Nunc dimittis is simpler in design. The music is slow and solemn, with the tenor and bass voices dominating. These marvellous canticles are really well sung by the Abbey choir.

The concluding piece, Song for Athene is doubly connected to Westminster Abbey. Many people will remember it as the piece that was sung at the conclusion of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in September 1997; on that occasion the music was heard accompanied by the quiet shuffling steps of the military pallbearers as they bore the coffin out of the Abbey. In fact, though, the Abbey connection goes back a few years earlier. Tavener composed it in memory of a family friend, Athene Hariades; that much I knew. What I didn’t know until I read Jeremy Dibble’s valuable notes, is that Taverner had been moved by hearing Athene read Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey. Thus, his text, compiled for him by Mother Thekla, combines words from the Orthodox funeral rite and lines from Hamlet. In this performance, the Abbey choir brings the necessary subdued tension to the music until the brief outburst in the last line of the text (‘Come, enjoy the rewards and crowns….’) before the piece subsides to a hushed close. It’s a moving conclusion to this programme.

This CD amply demonstrates that James O’Donnell passed on to his successor, Andrew Nethsingha, a choir in peak condition. The singing throughout is highly skilled and strongly committed. It’s a demanding programme which presents the choir with a wide variety of challenges: all these challenges are successfully met. Most of the music is a cappella, meaning that Peter Holder is not often involved. But in A Special Appeal his contribution is nothing less than spectacular.

Hyperion have entrusted this project to engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. With such an experienced team dealing with the technical aspects, it’s little surprise that the recordings are excellent. It will be noted that most of the music was recorded not on the choir’s home turf but in the fine acoustic of All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak. The choir sounds equally at home in both venues.

This disc closes the James O’Donnell era at Westminster Abbey in considerable style.

John Quinn

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