Notes and Editorial Reviews
CHRISTMAS VESPERS AT WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL
Martin Baker, dir; Matthew Martin (org); Westminster Cathedral Ch
HYPERION 67522 (68:12
SWEELINCK, TALLIS, VICTORIA, SCHÜTZ, LANGLAIS
This disc offers something different than the usual Westminster Cathedral Choir repertoire. It’s a more eclectic assortment of music to be sung at First Vespers of Christmas at the cathedral. After a
rousing start, an antiphon setting by Sweelinck, the antiphons and psalms of Vespers are organ-accompanied, but after the first three psalms we hear
(harmonized psalm-tones) in alternate verses of the last two psalms and the hymn. After each reprise of antiphon, an organ improvisation inserts a meditative pause. All the lesser chants of the service are included. Intensity continues to build with the canticle by Tallis and the final antiphon by Victoria (his five-voice setting). A special feature of Christmas is the reading of the martyrology (usually relegated to the obscurity of Prime), a text that takes a long view of the birth of the Savior in the course of the world’s history. A motet by Schütz,
Hodie Christus natus est
, and an organ voluntary conclude the celebration. It’s a reminder that earlier in the last century this was the pattern in most cathedrals, allowing that the composers represented were often of a far lower level of distinction than Tallis and Victoria. The monastic practice of Gregorian chant was hardly ever the norm in cathedrals. We have heard First Vespers of Christmas before, for the very first Archiv recording made at Beuron in 1952 was issued here on Decca DL 7546 before the Archive LP import line existed. The set of antiphons alone has also been recorded at least twice, but the Beuron disc provides the classic contrast between monastic and cathedral practice. If you can find the old mono issue, the comparison is striking.
Even though there is only a small amount of chant on the disc, the lengthy notes betray considerable confusion about its development. Ambrosian chant was not “written” in the fourth century, nor can we date more than a few hymns out of the vast repertoire to that early time. There was nothing “Moorish” about Mozarabic chant, more correctly called Old Spanish because it survived under the Moors from the time before the invasion. Gallican chant came not from “France” but from Roman Gaul before the Frankish conquest. The “radical difference in musical style” between Eastern and Western chant did not arise after the division of Christendom, for it was there from the beginning.
The real value of this disc is the palpable sense of atmosphere in the listening. The service unfolds in the acoustic space of the great Byzantine structure, almost making the listener present. Some might object to the amount of reverberation, but it contributes to the sense of space, and I wouldn’t want to tame it, as is rightly done in more straightforward recording sessions. The retention here of the Vulgate Latin psalms in preference to adopting the neo-Vulgate of 1981 is a real plus, for it is hard to imagine who would need an unfamiliar translation in the years following the post-conciliar reduced use of Latin. This disc is quite unique, a hugely successful evocation of Catholic cathedral worship at its best. Give it a try.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
Works on This Recording
Fête for Organ by Jean Langlais
Matthew Martin (Organ)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1946; France
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