Tudor — and musical

25 November 2008

Roderic Dunnett on a feast for Mary and Elizabeth


WHATEVER the Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell, turns his hand to bears the mark of excellence. That was true previously when he was director of Westminster Cathedral Choir, and opened a rich trove of less familiar repertoire — Anerio, Morales, Pizzetti, and Widor — in recordings for Hyperion which are unsurpassed.

Westminster School and the Abbey both owe a debt to Henry VIII’s daughters, the Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, whose remains lie one above the other in the Abbey’s north-east corner. Both institutions host annual commemorations of them, “sisters in hope of the resurrection”, as the Latin tomb inscription proclaims.

At the concert culmination of three days of royal celebrations last week, James O’Donnell led a first-rate programme on which every choirman and choirboy can look back with pride and delight. So, too, should the Abbey sub-organist, Robert Quinney, a former organ scholar of King’s, whose accompanying notes were exemplary. (The other stars were surely the Abbey’s needlewomen: not a cassock seam out of place.)

Three works stood out. The first was William Mundy’s massive Vox Patris caelestis, written — amazingly — “probably for an augmented parish church choir”. This reveals Mundy, an Abbey head chorister in Henry VIII’s reign, as one of the true masters of the Marian-Elizabethan choral transition. The endlessly varied textures of the lower-voice verses, abetted here and there by a quartet of confident top boy choristers, emerged superbly.

The second outstanding work was the anthem Exaudiat te Dominus by Robert White, who attained his peak just as Elizabeth succeeded, and was choirmaster at Ely Cathedral just a year before Byrd undertook a similar post at Lincoln. Third, and for me a great surprise, was John Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos, a short imprecation in which Sheppard weaves sumptuous cascading textures that sound like a cross between 40-part Tallis and lush contrapuntal Ravel.

There were tiny disappointments. Sheppard’s Cranmerian Second Service seems paltry beside his high-riding output for Magdalen College, Oxford, and scarcely worthy of revival (give me John Farrant any day). The opening Tye (Omnes gentes) lacked some assurance. And, after a thrilling Byrd Ne irascaris, the beautiful concluding prayer for Queen Elizabeth seemed spurred on too fast to make any impact.

My chief reservation was that, for all the conscious differences in musical approach and acoustic, the Abbey trebles — unlike the choirmen — don’t manipulate their mouths in the brilliant way Mr O’Donnell’s trebles at Westminster Cathedral used to: scarcely an “ah” or an “oh”, but a medley of indeterminate front-vowels. It has a knock-on effect on consonants too: the boys’ words felt not nearly as adaptable and polished as on their Mary and Elizabeth recording (Hyperion CDA 67704), highly praised by the Gramophone magazine.

THERE was no such problem for Robert William Blake, ten-year-old son of the composer Howard Blake. With Bernard Cribbins, nearly 80, and a polished Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, he was the star of a 70th-birthday tribute to Blake Sr at the Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square, in London.

You could hear every word sung by Master Blake (a member of the Stockholm Boys’ Choir), both when he was amplified and when he wasn’t. I have never heard The Snowman live, and had not realised how, with its wit, sensitivity, and subtle design, it is a masterpiece when viewed as a whole.

We were eager to hear the London première, also conducted by the composer, of Blake’s 50-minute oratorio The Passion of Mary, which draws together his previous Stabat Mater, the Magnificat, the Salve Regina, and other Marian and nativity texts with the wisdom of a Berlioz.

The outcome is a splendid, highly accessible choral work of Three Choirs dimensions. Patricia Rosario — here especially striking — and Martyn Hill were the soprano and tenor soloists. Howard Blake is a master-musician from whom our church and cathedral organists should commission anthems and canticle settings; for he has inspiration on his side.

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