Three Motets Op.38
Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in F minor
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat Op 164
Nunc dimitis in B flat
Sir Hubert Parry
Songs of farewell
The Choir of Westminster Abbey
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: HYPERION CDA68301
Duration: 65 minutes
This Hyperion release focuses on evening canticles and motets, but no less significant for being without organ. With the exception of Stanford’s Three Motets (published in 1905), the other works belong to the years 1912 and 1918 and were mostly conceived for collegiate choirs at Cambridge University (where Stanford, Alan Gray and Charles Wood held appointments). Much is standard cathedral repertoire, although Stanford’s Magnificat in B-flat is more usually associated with the larger choral foundations.
The Choir of Westminster Abbey constitutes some thirty-three singers with a full tone that here is sometimes too conspicuous. That’s as much to do with the generous acoustic that transforms these forces into a much larger chorus and at the expense of any sense of reverence. Performances are neither confiding nor intimate, much to the disadvantage in particular of Parry’s Songs of Farewell already recorded with great distinction elsewhere. There’s no doubting the professionalism of the Abbey choristers or the well-judged tempos, but this account, bursting with assurance, generates little emotional charge.
One of the few sets of unaccompanied evening canticles still regularly found in cathedral service lists is that of Gray in F-minor. Steamrollered into life, the Magnificat does little to convey the Virgin Mary’s impending childbirth. Any sense of joy she may have experienced is regrettably absent in this outpouring of red-blooded manliness – a powerful demonstration of late Victorian muscular Christianity. Stanford’s Latin Magnificat (a splendid pastiche on J. S. Bach and dedicated to Parry) is another beefy affair, its ‘all guns blazing’ manner fatiguing. The work’s dense eight-part textures are handled more persuasively by other ensembles.
That said, I enjoyed the virile sound of the baritones in Charles Wood‘s Nunc Dimittis in B-flat – one of several a cappella settings written for Westminster Cathedral Choir during the period of its first Master of Music R. R. Terry. James O’Donnell, also a former organist at Westminster Cathedral, encourages ample tone and fashions a magnificent hymn of praise and leaves no doubt that the aged Simeon will see the Messiah before he dies.
The disc opens with Stanford’s Three Motets in which the group’s robust tone finds an appropriate home in ‘Coelos ascendit’, but despite hints of spiritual reassurance in ‘Justorum animae’ and ‘Beati quorum via’ more subtle treatment is needed. O’Donnell has impressive forces at his fingertips, but solidity comes at a price. Texts and translations are included in the booklet.