Westminster Mass
Westminster Cathedral Choir, City of London
Sinfonia (74 minutes) London's Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral Choir is often mistaken for the choir of its better known Anglican neighbor across town, Westminster Abbey. The unusual program of sacred music on this deeply spiritual and hauntingly beautiful CD should help imprint the Cathedral's ensemble in our minds. While many classical sacred-music recordings tend to feature well-known music from earlier periods, the repertoire here is drawn entirely from the 20th century, including several compositions commissioned by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. Modern as they are, the pieces on this disk exploit masterfully the musical styles that the Cathedral choir has long been revered for: Gregorian Chant, Elizabethan and Renaissance Polyphony, as well as contemporary compositions. Each piece on this recording incorporates characteristics of one or more of the three styles. Each composer, furthermore, draws heavily on the idioms of variety of liturgical traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Former cathedral chorister and Master of Music Colin Mawby's setting of "Ave Verum Corpus" was originally conceived for choir with organ accompaniment, but it appears here in a new arrangement for choir and strings that is much more effective. The choral writing divides into as many as eight voice parts, with harmonies that are sensuous, and dramatic dynamic climaxes (particularly in the passage, "Cujus latus perforatum unda fluxit sanguine--"Cleanse us, by the blood and water streaming from Thy pierced side").
Since his conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1977, British-born John Tavener has steeped his compositions in the traditions and elaborate ceremonial of this denomination--Byzantine drones, chant-like melodic lines, and voices singing in canon or retrograde. "Funeral Ikos," heard on this disk, is a perfect example of the composer's minimalist style. The text is drawn from the Greek Orthodox Liturgy for the Burial of Priests and the music contains very plaintive unison lines divided between high and low voices and a starkly-harmonized Alleluia refrain, achieving through understatement an elegant and solemn mood. Estonian composer Arvo Part's inspiration can be traced to the Russian Orthodox tradition. His setting of the Beatitudes is mysterious and hypnotic, featuring a mathematically-constructed sequence of similar chords for each phrase of text, accompanied and separated by low, droning pedal notes from the organ or by brief silent pauses. Part's use of silence is quite effective, forcing the listener to focus more closely on the words (Matthew 5:3-12). The music intensifies with the entrance of each new verse leading up to a full-voiced Amen before the dramatic entrance of the full organ in undulating arpeggios. The remaining items on this CD are settings of the Mass by Edmund Rubbra and Roxanna Panufnik. Edmund Rubbra, an English composer better known in this country for his instrumental works than for his choral output, became interested in Buddhism and Taoism before converting to Catholicism in 1948. The "Missa in honorem Sancti Dominici," Op. 66, or St. Dominic Mass, commemorates the fact that Rubbra was received in the Catholic Church on St. Dominic's Day, August 4th, 1948.
Herbert Howells' "Salve Regina" is the earliest work on this recording, dating from 1915 and is one of "Four Anthems of the Blessed Virgin Mary" written for the Westminster Cathedral Choir and their director and founder, the late Dr. Richard R. Terry. Howells successfully melds the 16th century polyphonic writing style of Palestrina, Tallis and Byrd with his own 20th century unique and personal approach to melody and harmony. The expressiveness of the Westminster Cathedral Choir as they sing the climatic phrase, "Vita dulcedo et spes nostra salve" ("our life, our sweetness and our hope: hail!") in full voice, or the phrase "in hac lacrymarum valle" ("in this vale of tears") extremely quietly, the beauty of the boy soprano soloist singing, "O clemens, o pia ... ", and the serenity of the full choir's final cadence of "O dulcis Virgo Maria" are all deeply moving. The newest and most extensive work on this splendid recording is Roxanna Panufnik's Westminster Mass. Commissioned in 1998 on the occasion of the late Cardinal Basil Hume's 75th birthday, it exists in three versions: one for choir and organ accompaniment, one with organ and tubular bells and harp and the full orchestra version, heard here. Panufik's "Kyrie" begins with a sonic halo of random-sounding entrances by the upper voices that are accompanied by bells. As the movement unfolds, the choir shifts from singing in Greek to singing in English. Harps play a bell-like opening to the Gloria as the choir makes its jubilant opening entrances. Panufnik makes subtle changes in tempo throughout.
The next movement, "Deus, Deus meus," is not part of the traditional format of the Mass. Panufnik added it in at the request of Cardinal Hume, as the text, Psalm 63, sung here in both English and Latin, was the cardinal's favorite scriptural passage. The movement features a soprano soloist supported by imitative phrases that build in volume and intensity. The Sanctus features an inventive use of the tubular bells and harps accompanying the voices. The mood is one of jollity as the choir sings the Hosannas with exuberant energy. The Benedictus is more restrained and concludes with a reprise of the Hosannas. It is the composer's intention that this work could be performed as actual service music, shown by the fact that the Memorial Acclamation and Amen are comparatively brief responses, due to the point where these responses would occur in the liturgy.. The Agnus Dei begins with a bell and harp motif against a repeating two-note vocal melody and shifting chords from the strings. The movement builds to a huge climax and resolves into a final sonic halo on "Grant us peace." This is an accessible piece that will, hopefully, receive more frequent performances in churches and concert halls alike. Under the direction of James O'Donnell, the Westminster Cathedral Choir has proven itself to be a first-rate ensemble, singing with professionalism, passion, and expressiveness. The boys produce a well-supported sound that balances well with the rich sounding men's section and the orchestra.

The synthesis of musical styles from past traditions with those of the present age is what makes this recording so successful. The composers have found inspiration in the spiritual and the profound, through a common thread that links them with the sounds and words of ancient cultures, giving this CD a timeless quality.

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