The Monarch’s Music CRD

The Monarch’s Music
Choir of St. George’s Chapel Windsor Castle
Band of the Household Cavalry/Major Paul Collis-Smith, James Vivia 
Luke Bond (organ)
rec. 2022 St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, UK
CRD 3545 [57]

Under the collective title of “The Monarch’s Music”, two of the musical ensembles most closely associated with the British Royal Family are brought together to perform what might loosely be described as “royal” music.   The Band of the Household Cavalry is in fact a recent creation formed in just 2014 by the combining of the mounted bands of The Life Guards and The Blues and Royals.  The result is the largest symphonic wind band in the British Army – the liner lists a playing strength of 42.  Performing alongside them is The Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.  Unlike their colleagues – in existence for under a decade – this choir was founded in 1348 and has sung continuously in the castle chapel since then except for the eleven years of Parliamentary rule from 1649-60.  The choir sings with a mixed treble line (although it looks as if thirteen boys performed on this recording) alongside fourteen lay-clerks of whom two are female altos.  The royal connection is further reinforced by this being recorded in St. George’s Chapel within the castle grounds.  Before considering the music, a quick mention for the remaining performers.  Luke Bond is the Assistant Director of Music at St. George’s and he does a fine job providing organ accompaniments in several of the pieces.  The liner makes no mention of the chapel organ  which a search online tells me is a Harrison & Harrison 1965 instrument which sounds in fine shape if it really is nearly sixty years since major work was done on it.  The conducting duties are shared between the Chapel’s Director of Music James Vivian who directs the choir-only works and Major Paul Collis-Smith who as director of The Band of the Household Cavalry conducts all the music that features the band.

The programme is of mainly very familiar music with all of the pieces that do include the band in arrangements.  There is good variety across the disc from solo choir, choir and organ, choir band and organ, band alone and finally a rousing arrangement of the Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony – finale for band and organ.  The two opening pieces underline the fact that this disc was recorded before the death of Queen Elizabeth.  Hence both the National Anthem – in John Rutter’s premiere recording arrangement – and Parry’s superb I Was Glad reference the Queen rather than the new King.  Both these performances rather set the tone for the Collis-Smith directed performances.  The upside is the distinctive sound of a British Military Band, with prominent trumpets (no brass band cornets, flugel horns, tenors or baritones) and a less homogenised tone.  The downside is a slightly matter of fact, no-nonsense approach that perhaps befits the role of a marching band but feels a little rigid and lacking expression in concert.  I Was Glad – as the recent coronation underlined – is really a piece of ceremonial theatre which benefits from an overwhelming weight of choral and instrumental power.  When performed by the relatively limited forces involved here the impact is diminished even when sung and played with vigour.  Compare the un-matched performance from 1977 by Phillip Ledger and the massed choirs of Cambridge University, Kneller Hall and The New Philharmonia for a truly imposing performance.  Likewise Vaughan Williams’ The Old Hundreth – which is always an uplifting experience – simply sounds better with massed forces.  Martin Neary’s Westminster Abbey Choir joined with London Brass (with their distinctly symphonic sound) on IMP for a performance comparable to this new one in terms of the forces used but the older version has a drama which Collis-Smith rather fails to capture.  

Much the same can be said of his interpretations of the two ‘standard’ marches; Walton’s Crown Imperial and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.4.  Both have the virtue of alert playing and good basic tempi.  But there is a distinct sense that Collis-Smith is used to playing these as actual practical marches so there is almost no rhythmic variety and little broadening of tempi for the final return of the respective trio themes.  Of course this is a legitimate performing choice – just not one I enjoy for repeated listening.  Dan Godfrey’s transcription of Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit is very effective and works well – I can imagine this being played at Remembrance Day events and similar occasions.  The mellow tones of the military ensemble are well-suited to the organ-like registrations of this work and it receives an effective if unsentimental performance.  I had not heard Laurie Johnson’s Vivat Regina before.  Johnson – still alive and aged 96 – is best remembered for his TV themes for The Avengers and The Professionals as well as various 60’s jazz-influenced scores and albums.  According to the liner this rather grand and imposing fanfare like piece – just 2:11 long – has been excerpted from a suite he wrote celebrating Queen Victoria although it is not clear if this was an orchestral or band score originally.  This shows The Band of the Household Cavalry at their best.  They are also very good in the finale from Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 ‘Organ’ which closes the programme.  The liner suggests a slightly tenuous link between the composer and Queen Victoria but it certainly makes for an uplifting conclusion.  That said a different arrangement for Organ and Symphonic Brass played by the Washington Symphonic Brass is possibly even more viscerally exciting.

As musical performances those directed by James Vivian feel more nuanced and expressive.  His Choir of St. George’s Chapel are well-drilled and impressive – there is perhaps a slightly insistent tenor whose voice protrudes on occasion but the three works for choir with or without organ are disc highlights.  These include the longest single work on the disc; Elgar’s Te Deum Op.34 No.1.  The argument for its inclusion is Elgar’s later contributions to royal events but this substantial work – 11:04 here – was written for the 1897 Hereford Music Festival.  It has been recorded many times in its chorus and organ version as here, but the scale and ambition of the work probably responds even better to the orchestral garb.  This new version is similar to others although my favourite choir and organ version remains the performance by The Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea under Ian Curror.  They are an adult mixed choir and their performance, a good minute slower than here, is grander yet more festive to good effect.  Britten’s A Hymn to St. Columba seems to have no specific royal connections but again receives an attractive and attentive performance although not so remarkable as to displace previous preferences.  I do like the slightly hushed approach of Vivian although Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen is arrestingly direct with a very different overall effect.  I had never heard Adrian Batten’s O Sing Joyfully which shows just how well this choir can perform what might be termed a ‘traditional’ liturgical work.  The liner rather optimistically puts Batten’s dates as 1603-1714 compared to Wiki’s more measured c. 1591 – c. 1637.  Nothing in the liner suggests a direct royal connection but this is an attractive brief work well sung.

A quick mention here about the recording itself.  David Hinitt has taken on the combined role of Producer and Engineer and he has done a very good job.  The large acoustic of the chapel is enjoyably ‘present’ without blurring detail but Hinitt’s main achievement is to create a very believable perspective between the quite different performing groups of band, choir and organ.  The overall balances, even as the combinations of groupings change from track to track, are very well handled and add considerably to the pleasure of listening to this disc.  The liner is attractive and informative about both repertoire and performers.  I do enjoy the combination of brass, wind, organ and chorus so by that measure there is much to engage with here although the interpretations of the band works feel just a bit too plain and lacking musical insight to command repeated listening.

Nick Barnard

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Trad arr. John Rutter (b.1945)
The National Anthem* (2013)
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) 
I Was Glad* (1911) (trans. for Military band by Lt. Col. Edward Sills adapted by WO1 Daniel Shave)
William Walton (1902-1983)
Crown Imperial* (1937) (arr. for Military Band by William Duthoit)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
All people that on earth do dwell “The Old Hundredth”* (1953)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Te Deum Op.34 No.1 (1897)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
A Hymn to St. Columba (1962)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Chanson de Nuit Op.15 No.1* (1889) (arr. for Military Band by Dan Godfey Junior)
Adrian Batten (c.1591–c.1637)
O Sing Joyfully
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance March in G major Op.39 No.4* (1907) (trans. for Military band by Michael Retford)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ – finale* (1886) (arr. for Military Band and organ by Earl Anderson Slocum)