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Mary And Elizabeth At Westminster Abbey / James O'Donnell, Westminster Cathedral Choir


Release Date: 10/14/2008 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67704   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Christopher TyeWilliam MundyThomas TallisJohn Sheppard,   ... 
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

An illuminating CD of consistently fine performances.

This CD’s absorbing focus is centred on how far church music changed when Queen Elizabeth I succeeded Mary and how far it didn’t.

The first four items belong to Mary’s reign. Tye’s Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus (tr. 1) is given a spruce, freshly scrubbed account. It’s rather stark in the dominance of its trebles’ piercing high register and emphasis on rising motifs, for instance the athletic ‘Ascendit Deus in iubilo’ (1:30). I compared O’Donnell’s 1998 recording with his previous choir, that of Westminster Cathedral (Hyperion CDA66850). Timing at 4:36 this is slower than 2008’s 4:15 but thereby calmer with a smoother line and more even tonal balance
Read more between the trebles and lower parts. ‘Ascendit Deus’ is a creamier, more euphonious sound, the lower parts more lyrical. The beginning of the second section, ‘Psallite Deo’, in place of 2008’s assertive scintillation (2:06) has a more madrigalian joy. The treble entries at ‘Quoniam rex’, ‘psallite sapienter’ and the closing ‘elevati sunt’ crown the texture with more sheen and with a reflective quality. The 2008 version delivers a harder-edged stunning display of virtuosity and rigour.

Mundy’s Vox Patris caelestis (tr. 2) has a rarefied quality from the opening verse and come the trebles’ entry in descant register at ‘ex corde purissimo’ (2:20) we’re left in no doubt as to the special nature of Mary. A verse of high voices at ‘Surge, propera’ (6:48) is followed by one of low voices at ‘Veni de corpore mortali’ (8:05) giving a feel of limitless space emphasised by the beaming splendour of the full chorus ‘Veni ad me’ (9:14). The soloists’ singing in the verses has firmness and edge, leanness of projection and purposive ardour of progression. The booklet rightly credits them, as I have in this review’s heading. Similarly in the chorus there’s muscularity in the melismata of the imitative entries in the different parts from 10:25 at ‘speciem tuam’ matching a text of unequivocal desire. The closing chorus is the most exciting with skipping semiquaver descents in its final ‘Veni’ appeals (15:32) and the heavenwards surge of the ascending flourishes from 16:19 in its ‘Amen’. I compared The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips recorded in 1996 (Gimell GIMSE401). Phillips is slightly slower, 17:39 against O’Donnell’s 17:26, with a quieter opening emphasising clarity of part-writing more than its progression. The sopranos’ descant is more objective and ethereal. The descant of O’Donnell’s trebles is more authentic and striking while generally his account has a more stunning impact than Phillips’ more beauteous meditation.

Videte miraculum (tr. 3) finds Tallis alternating plainchant with elaborate polyphony in six parts. The opening dissonances on the tiered entries of ‘miraculum’ from the lowest to highest parts, quite pacily presented by O’Donnell, create a shiver of strangeness. The second section, ‘Stans onerata’ (1:47) has a gleaming clarity and strength of statement leading to a glowing invocation to ‘Maria’. The third section, ‘Et matrem se laetam’ (2:35) has a homelier feel of reverent wonder. There’s more of a personal quality and poise about this performance than the 1998 recording by the Chapelle du Roi/Alistair Dixon (Signum SIGCD010) which takes a more dramatic, sinewy lean approach. Westminster’s top line is firmer, less exactly balanced than Dixon’s smaller ensemble but O’Donnell’s overall presentation is smoother.

Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos I (tr. 4) is a prayer to the Holy Trinity in which a slow moving plainsong bass is the foundation for six vocal parts in imitative counterpoint, in particular the two treble parts blossoming in their highest pitch in the closing repetitions of ‘O beata Trinitas’. O’Donnell keeps this all suitably lambent and reflective with his larger body of voices than Stile Antico’s 2006 recording (Harmonia Mundi HMU807419). Stile Antico’s mixed voices, less authentic for this piece, are creamier and their close is a little fuller, more ethereal, less prayerful. Yet with both accounts you feel the prayer rising and radiating around the church vaulting.

The remaining items on this CD belong to Elizabeth’s reign. Sheppard’s Second Service makes the English text setting for Elizabeth scrupulously clear. It also has an opulence of presentation achieved by a mix of full choir, antiphony between cantoris and decani, repetition of significant text such as ‘all generations’ (tr. 5 0:46) and imitation. ‘He hath put down’ (2:34) is started by cantoris and imitated by decani. In the Magnificat Amen even dancing melismata are admitted on the first syllable. O’Donnell presents this smilingly while the Nunc dimittis (tr. 6) is similarly both majestic and serene with the imitation again spotlighting key elements of the text, ‘To be a light’, ‘glory’, ‘And ever shall be’. O’Donnell is more blithe and festive than The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Hyperion CDA66603) recorded in 1992. O’Donnell’s all-male forces and use of organ accompaniment are also more authentic.

Byrd is first represented by Teach me, O Lord (tr. 7), the one piece on this CD sung by many parish church choirs. It is a straightforward setting in which verses for treble soloist with organ accompaniment alternate with chorus in five parts. The quality, however, lies in the detail, the clarity with which the elaborate cross-rhythms towards the end of the choruses and the slighter yet growing elaboration of rhythm in the solo verses and finesse of the organ accompaniment may be appreciated. O’Donnell’s account is very stylish in these aspects. I compared the 1992 Worcester Cathedral Choir/Donald Hunt recording (Griffin GCCD4053, review). Somewhat slower than O’Donnell, 3:44 against 3:20, Hunt has a more reflective, adoring beauty, but I prefer O’Donnell’s purposive quality of resolute prayer, expressively articulated.

In this CD’s scholarly yet very readable booklet note organist Robert Quinney refers to the ‘personal expressivity’ that marks out Ne irascaris, Domine (tr. 8). This partly stems from it having been published for domestic performance, the expected forces thus being small-scale, mixed voices, perhaps less than the thirteen of the 2007 recording by Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi HMU807463 - review). O’Donnell here shows that 29 voices can still be expressive. Admittedly the balance isn’t as finely blended as Stile Antico’s three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, two baritones and two basses when Westminster fields sixteen trebles, four countertenors, four tenors and five basses but the lower parts are sufficiently prominent for it not to be treble-dominated here. Stile Antico are a little slower and more meditative, 9:38 against 8:53, with a smoother-shaped line, beauteously polished and heard to glowing effect. Westminster’s articulation has a more careworn quality, so the opening is more of an appeal, the cries of ‘Ecce’ more imploring beacons, ‘populos tuos’ has a more affecting humility, though Stile Antico are soft and contrite. Stile Antico set apart the chordal section, ‘Sion deserta’ more raptly with greater poise than O’Donnell. On the other hand he brings a plainer sense of expanse to ‘facta est deserta’ which suits the text better. His ‘Jerusalem’ succeeding entries bring a more uplifting recollection of happier times; this before more aching ones for ‘desolata est’ provide a vivid sense of community of witness and pain.

Also well known is O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth (tr. 9), which O’Donnell begins in quiet reverence which is earnest in its progression and in its clarity of counterpoint. The ardour of entries of the different vocal parts for ‘and give her a long life’ (from 1:24) is as if the Tudor rose opens into full bloom. O’Donnell recorded this anthem with the same choir in 2005 (Hyperion CDA 67533). The earlier account, timing at 3:01 against the present 2:43, is more projected and stately but also more objective. This 2008 performance has a more natural flow and thence a contemplative quality and inwardness which brings greater strength to its supplications.

White’s Exaudiat te Dominus (tr. 10) sees a return to Mundy’s dramatic contrasts between verses and choruses but with yet bolder effects and terser presentation. The opening verse is notably freer flowing with showy roulades in the upper parts at ‘tuum confirmet’ (1:36) carried off here with a real flourish, then a sonorous chorus, ‘Laetabimur in salutari tui’ (1:53), rejoicing indeed. The verse ‘Exaudiat in illum’ (3:22), starting in two parts, is suddenly more measured and yearningly personal as is the light realization of ‘nos autem surreximus’ (5:29) and the dancing beginning of the closing ‘Domine, salvum fac regem’ (5:48) before the chorus takes it up in a sumptuous seven-part texture. I compared The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips recording of 1995 (Gimell CDGIM030) which at 9:35 is a good deal slower than O’Donnell’s 7:40. Phillips clarifies the text and beauty of the worship with smooth-spanned roulades and choruses broad in line and tone, the closing one with an adoring opening. Yet O’Donnell brings a more engaging urgency and assertion - more grit, if you like.

This illuminating CD of consistently fine performances shows that the musical glory of Elizabeth’s reign was its flexibility, a tolerated co-existence of old and new styles.

-- Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1. Omnes gentes, plaudite by Christopher Tye
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 4 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
2. Vox patris caelestis by William Mundy
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 17 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
3. Videte miraculum by Thomas Tallis
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 9 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
4. Libera nos, salva nos no 1 by John Sheppard
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 3 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
5. Second Service: Magnificat by John Sheppard
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 5 Minutes 38 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
6. Second Service: Nunc dimittis by John Sheppard
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 3 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
7. Teach me, O Lord by William Byrd
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: England 
Length: 3 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
8. Liber primus sacrarum cantionum: Ne irascaris Domine by William Byrd
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: by 1589; London, England 
Length: 9 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
9. O Lord, make thy servant "A prayer for the King" by William Byrd
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: England 
Length: 2 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 
10. Exaudiat te, Dominus by Robert White
Conductor:  James O'Donnell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Abbey Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Length: 7 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Simon Eadon.
Audio Producer: Jeremy Summerly. 

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