This Hyperion release outlines the longstanding relationship between Winchester Cathedral Choir and Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) initiated by Martin Neary (author of the printed note, the booklet also including sung texts) who had commissioned a number of works during his tenure as Cathedral Organist (1972-1987). They have become central to the Choir’s repertoire, sung throughout the David Hill years (recorded for Virgin Classics) and now continued with Andrew Lumsden.
One might think the Cathedral had been built for Tavener’s music, so perfectly moulded are his soaring gestures to the building’s lofty arches. Under Lumsden’s inspired direction, the singing amplifies the certainties of Tavener’s faith, his unshakable belief speaking volumes (almost literally) in the arresting organ entry of God is with us, with a text adapted for Christmas Eve from the Orthodox Great Compline. Its emotional impact from boys and men is totally convincing, as is the authoritative singing of William Kendall whose magisterial tenor so persuasively foretells the coming of Christ.
Equally compelling is the Hymn to the Mother of God, which unfolds with inimitable glowing fervour, its evocation of cosmic rejoicing superbly rendered. Incomparable too are the recurring drones, their sense of timelessness impressively caught in the long-breathed lines of As one who has slept. A great job also from engineer Andrew Mellor who has harnessed the Cathedral’s acoustic to enhance the music’s simultaneous momentum and stillness, chords floating around untethered and timeless, an intensity truly mesmerising. No-less intense is the emotional power of Annunciation, built on the juxtaposition between a spatially separated group (expressing Mary’s awed wonder) and full choir (the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement) sung with composure and thrilling gravitas.
Three arrangements (Song for Athene, The Lamb, The Lord’s Prayer) by Barry Rose for upper voices and organ offer alternatives to Tavener’s a cappella versions. In Song for Athene George Castle’s contribution is sensitively judged and the voice of Angus Williams fits this consolatory music like a glove, yet in The Lamb (for SSAA) I missed the contrasting depth of tone from men’s voices. Likewise, the organ plus two-part upper voices for The Lord’s Prayer does not fully convince despite the musicianship.
But the change of mood brought about by Angels itself is particularly striking; glittering organ clusters, well-projected choral tone (tenors and basses resonate splendidly) and a nicely blended quartet of heavenly messengers (girls’ voices) do much to develop a prosaic text; undeniably compelling. So too in the more distinctive pairing of Love bade me welcome (George Herbert) and They are all gone into the world of light (Henry Vaughan), sung with dignity and involvement, shaped with affection.
Five anthems from The Veil of the Temple (Tavener’s seven-hour epic written for the Temple Church in London in 2003) furnish rewarding listen too. Most memorable is the tenderness and subterranean bass tone in ‘Mother of God, here I stand’ and the haunting simplicity of ‘Awed by the beauty’. The dancing rhythms of ‘O Mary Theotokos’ brings a final demonstration of this Choir’s empathy with a composer who has immeasurably enriched Winchester Cathedral’s spiritual life.