Plainsong, Palestrina, Organ solos and improvisations, J.S. Bach, Peter Maxwell Davies, Messiaen, Congregational Carols, James MacMillan, Godefroid, Lassus and Warlock

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Martin Baker (director)
Matthew Martin (organ)
Catrin Finch (harp)
Those who prefer their carol singing sans religious instruction (i.e. lessons) while still enjoying the ceremony of having a traditional cathedral choir leading them in song in the pleasing surroundings of an eighteenth-century building had a rollicking good time at this concert.
After a less than satisfactory first half in which the young chaps of the choir seemed a little tired and distracted, resulting in a dreary performance of Palestrina’s usually uplifting “Missa Hodie Christus natus est”, the second half was quite superb. I rather suspect director Martin Baker put the fear of God into his hapless charges during the intermission, because the contrast couldn’t have been greater, with tight, energetic performances of some difficult music.
Westminster Cathedral Choir is known for its performances (and recordings on Hyperion) of the music of Palestrina and his contemporaries, so it was unusual to hear such a lacklustre performance. After a plainsong Introit, chanted as the choir made their way to the stage, came the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ (accompanied, as were all the parts of the Mass, by an onstage chamber organ); this was followed by a short organ solo from Matthew Martin on the house organ. Another section of the plainsong “Dominus dixit ad me” provided one of the few first-half highpoints with some beautiful, flowing melismas from the boys. The lengthy ‘Credo’ was then sung, following which came an exciting modal-based organ improvisation with a slower, whole-tone middle section by Martin. Between the ‘Sanctus/Benedictus’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’ came a wonderfully colourful performance of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor arranged for harp. Catrin Finch certainly pulled out all the stops, metaphorically speaking, with florid passages, harmonics and sweeping arpeggios; which meant that the performance of Palestrina’s motet “Hodie Christus natus est”, upon which his own Mass is based, could only have been a let-down.
However, as I mentioned in my introduction, the second half was an entirely different story. Once we did our bit with five verses of “Once in Royal David’s City”, the choir were free to go it alone with Maxwell Davies’s Four Carols from “O Magnum Mysterium”. The texts are in Old English and move from the gentle, mysterious title piece through the lively “Haylle, Comly and Clene”, with its shifting time signatures and antiphonal effects, the vigorous “Alleluia, pro virgine maria” (there was some wonderful work from the choir in the contrasting tutti/trio sections) to the final hushed “The Fader of Heaven”.
After another congregational carol and an organ solo from Martin, this time Messiaen’s ethereal Les anges, came the powerful “Seinte Mari moder milde” for choir and organ by Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan. This was probably the performance of the evening, with pronounced dynamics, antiphonal sections, chant-like and Scottish modal sections rushing towards a huge, multi-faceted climax.
Sandwiched between two more congregational carols was another piece for harp, this time Felix Godefroid’s interminable variations on the Carnival of Venice, an extremely beautiful and moving rendition of Peter Warlock’s a cappella motet “Bethlehem Down” and, without a break, Lassus’s majestic “Onmes de Saba”.
As a recessional, Martin improvised on the carol we had just sung together, “Hark! The herald angels sing” – a fine end to what was ultimately a very fine concert, one of several Hazard Chase Christmas concerts at St John’s.

 

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