The Choir of Westminster Abbey – James O’Donnell conducts Bairstow, Harris & Stanford [Hyperion]

4 of 5 stars

Bairstow, Harris, Stanford

The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell with Peter Holder (organ)

Recorded 15 & 16 February and 5 & 7 March 2018 in Westminster Abbey, London

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: May 2019
Duration: 76 minutes



Some of the finest sacred music written for the Anglican church is by these three knighted composer-organists whose impact still reverberates around cathedral cloisters. The settings of Edward Bairstow (1874-1946), William Harris (1883-1973) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) are often symphonically conceived, with the organ elevated to a quasi-orchestral dimension.

Under James O’Donnell, the Choir of Westminster Abbey delivers robust, forthright readings ideally suited for much of this music. That’s not to suggest any absence of devotional restraint, but speeds can lean towards the fast side and with singing that doesn’t always heed the maxim: “never louder than lovely”. Rather than volume, it’s more often acidic timbre that sets my teeth on edge, specifically in the ‘Magnificat’ of Stanford’s Evening Service in A.

More convincing is the rendition of that composer’s A Song of Wisdom which unfolds as a powerful scena. Helped considerably by O’Donnell’s shapely phrasing and mastery of the cumulative drama, the boys sing with blazing fervour to showcase the text’s colourful imagery to magnificent effect. Also from Stanford is the pageantry of Gloria in excelsis, written for the 1911 Coronation, but the Choir’s response to his wartime anthem For lo, I raise up (1915) is even more keenly felt: this evocation of a marauding army (prophesised by Habakkuk in the Old Testament) is given with unbridled passion, the depiction of galloping horses as graphic as anything in Stanford’s choral output.

Bairstow is most associated with York Minster where he was organist for over thirty years and contented enough to refuse an offer to succeed Frederick Bridge as organist at Westminster Abbey. He could be blunt in manner, which masked an acute sensitivity to texts, impressively demonstrated in the three works here. Heavenly Salem glows and there is a well-defined organ and a beguiling treble soloist, its celestial vision splendidly conveyed, and Lamentation (1942) is one of Bairstow’s most memorable creations, but this somewhat stolid account, despite much rewarding organ colouration, sounds unloved, verses piling into one another with little or no reflective space.

Three anthems (and Flourish for an Occasion) outline the best of Harris who was organist at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle for nearly three decades. While blend isn’t always ideal (with an intrusive bass) atmosphere is present in spades. Julian Stocker is a fine tenor in Strengthen ye the weak hands, its spectacle energetically, if not always compellingly, caught. Hyperion’s booklet includes texts.

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