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The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey
23 Sep 2007

The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey is surely many things to many people.

The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey

The Choir of Westminster Abbey; Robert Quinney, organ; James O’Donnell, Director.

Hyperion CDA67586 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

To some it is an architectural icon of royal ceremony and London’s vibrant public life; to others, it is a gallery of monuments; to others still, it persists as a cherished site of prayer and liturgy. The many faces it wears are, of course, the legacy of Edward, the Confessor, who in the eleventh century rebuilt the Abbey to grand dimensions. As the Abbey church houses his shrine and, by association, has long been the church of the coronation, it is no surprise that the Feast Day of St. Edward (October 13) is observed at the Abbey with special attention. And it is special attention that also marks the quality of this recording, a broad sampling of things one might hear at Matins, Holy Eucharist, and Evensong at the Abbey on the Feast. The aural glimpse of a particular feast day is a format that the Abbey Choir has previously essayed with a Trinity Sunday recording, also from Hyperion (CDA67557). The format is something of a variation on the long familiar service recordings of English cathedrals and chapels—Evensong for Ascension, Evensong for Advent Sunday, etc.—keeping the same sense of occasion and cohesion, though offering a wider swath of repertory.

Much of the music here represents a “golden age”: canticles and an anthem by Purcell, preces and suffrages by William Smith (whose Amen to the closing collect is a wonderful jewel), and a psalm by Morley. Stanford and Crotch come along for the ride, as well; their relative distance from the golden age make the hue of their gilt paler, although both remain well within the tradition. And while these pieces are familiar ones, the Abbey recording is no less welcome for it. The choir’s dance-like lilt for Purcell, their expressive explorations of the soft dynamic range, and, in the main their very satisfying blend are all compelling. Occasionally last notes of phrases from the men show less control than perfect balance requires—the opening chant is a case in point—but this is a rare lapse. And occasionally treble solo passages sound unconvincing, a surprise given the overall strength of the trebles in the tutti. The shortcomings are fleeting and momentary, the delight in the performance long-lasting.

The Anglican affinity for tradition might have left the recording to bask in the rich aura of its golden age hues—a “gilty plea” that few would begrudge--but O’Donnell boldly adds to the mix two commissioned works, Jonathan Harvey’s 1995 Missa Brevis and Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” (2005). Harvey’s mass is full of challenging dissonance and thick clusters, spiced also by spoken declamations amid the singing. Its modernism is a welcome reassurance of the continuing vibrancy of the “tradition,” and the challenges of its idiom are brilliantly met by the choir. Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” sets a beautiful modern poem by poet laureate, Andrew Motion, interestingly rich in medieval evocations. If the text looks backwards, the music does not, as Moore offers rich harmonic textures, well-crafted solo lines and rhythmicized interweavings that are engagingly dynamic. The performance is again, a strong one, especially in the tuttis and the bass solo. However, the treble solo—the voice of the “robin”--ultimately sounds difficult. It is accurately rendered, but wanting in confidence, much as was the case in the treble solos from the older repertories, as well.

One might eagerly await the continuation of this format from Hyperion, and look forward to further offerings from the liturgical riches of the Abbey and its brilliant choir.

Steven Plank

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