Maxwell Davies
Missa parvula (for unison upper voices and organ)
Mass (for full choir and two organs) *
Veni Creator Spiritus (organ)
Dum complerentur (unaccompanied full choir)
Reliqui domum meum (organ)
Veni Sancte Spiritus (unaccompanied full choir)
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Robert Quinney and Robert Houssart * (organs)
Martin Baker (The Master of Music)

Recorded 7-10 July 2003 in Westminster Cathedral, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67454
Duration: 67 minutes
Reviewed: August 2004
A CD of liturgical music by Peter Maxwell Davies? This might surprise anyone forgetting that the liturgy, the setting of sacred texts and the use of plainsong and early religious music, has been at the centre of this composer’s work from the very beginning.
Both the Mass (2002) and Missa parvula (2003) were written for The Choir of Westminster Cathedral. Like Britten before him (who wrote his Missa Brevis for the same choir) Maxwell Davies manages to write music that can is attainably within the technical compass of young people but does not write down to them. The music is austere, even more so being written for unison voices (the ‘Kyrie’ of the Missa parvula wouldn't sound out of place in the religious settings of Duruflé or even Fauré): cool, refreshing and at times very beautiful. The organ accompaniment is more angular and chromatic, dense and threatening – never overwhelming the voices but certainly giving an uncomfortable edge. The most extraordinary moment comes in the ‘Benedictus’ – a treble solo that is charming, touching and utterly sincere in the way that similar invention comes from Fauré. The ‘Agnus Dei’ returns to the soundworld of the ‘Kyrie’ and comes to rest on a slightly unsettling cadence. I have fallen in love with the Missa parvula: on the surface a simple little work, yet with so much to say, and it takes a real master to write something like this.
It’s odd that Hyperion have chosen to follow this Mass with the other Mass written for the Cathedral – it would have been much more sensible to have the motets and organ pieces in the middle and save this very different setting for the end. The organ pieces did little for me, but the recent motets harmonically very attractive; the final alleluias of Dum complerentur are just magical.
The opening of the large-scale Mass is not so unlike the unison work, but it soon becomes clear that the this is a very different proposition – the ‘Gloria’ is flamboyant, energetic, even theatrical, and the whole work is harmonically complex, despite the ghost of plainsong not being far away. The two organs give an added antiphonal grandeur occasionally bursting into virtuoso exchanges that remind of a composer such as Langlais rather than being part of the English choral tradition.
The demands on the eight-part choir seem formidable. Martin Baker coaxes the most remarkable singing from his choir, who, together with the organists, joyously bask in the demands set before them. Pitch, rhythm, phrasing, diction and tone are consistently excellent. In terms of sound quality, Hyperion captures the quiet passages wonderfully whilst the louder ones are powerful without being overwhelming. This is a most distinguished addition to the extraordinary series of recordings that Westminster Choir has made for Hyperion. If this release isn't showered with awards, then there is no justice.

 

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