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Our Lady Queen of Peace -Music for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum/Simon Bell
Dean Close School Chamber Choir (Moore)
Carleton Etherington (organ)
rec. 2017, Tewkesbury Abbey, UK.
Texts & translations included REGENTREGCD510 [71:08]
Tewkesbury Abbey is a magnificent church, almost cathedral-like in dimensions, which was consecrated in 1121. It’s all that remains of a substantial Benedictine monastery, dissolved by King Henry VIII. We should give thanks to the people of Tewkesbury who, in 1540, paid what was in effect a ransom to the king and thereby saved for posterity the building which is not only one of the largest parish churches in the British Isles but also, surely, one of the finest and most imposing,
The Abbey has two choirs to sing the liturgy. There’s a mixed SATB choir which, I believe, sings the weekend services. Weekday services, however, are entrusted to the Schola Cantorum. This all-male choir came into being when Miles Amherst founded the Abbey School in Tewkesbury in 1973 with the primary purpose of educating choristers. In 2006 the school was obliged to close but Dean Close School in Cheltenham stepped in and since then the boys have been educated there. They still sing Evensong each weekday, joined by adult male singers. For this recording the choir numbered 30 singers (17/4/4/5). For the Philip Moore anthem they were joined by 14 female singers from the Chamber Choir of Dean Close School.
The Abbey is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and the booklet is graced by a scholarly but very readable essay by Canon Paul Williams, the Vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, in which he traces the history of the Abbey’s dedication and also discusses aspects of Marian liturgy. The programme for this recording is built around music appropriate to the Feast of the Assumption, which is celebrated on 15 August. The planners of the programme had the happy structural idea of dividing it into music suitable for the Eucharist and for Evensong.
The cornerstone of the Eucharist section of the programme is Jonathan Dove’s fine Missa brevis. I’ve encountered this before, in a
very good recording from Wells Cathedral. When I reviewed that disc in 2010, when the composition was fairly hot off the press, I expressed the hope that it would be taken up by other choirs. I’m delighted to find, therefore, not only that Simon Bell has taken it into the Tewkesbury Schola’s repertoire but also that he’s encouraged his choir to give such a committed performance of it. I like the way that Dove builds up the tension in the ‘Kyrie’ through an accretion of choral textures. The movement is well done here, as is the exuberant ‘Gloria’. The latter movement is underpinned by almost ceaseless energy in the organ part, which is excitingly played by Carleton Etherington. Bell and the choir build the intensity of the ‘Agnus Dei’ very successfully but they also bring off the subdued ending very well.
The Dove is bookended by French music. Marcel Dupré’s Ave Maria is for trebles and organ. The music is simple in utterance but compositionally sophisticated. The Tewkesbury boys do it well. Poulenc’s wonderful Salve Regina for a cappella choir is more of a challenge with its piquant harmonies. It’s well sung, though I thought the resonant acoustics of the Abbey worked a little against the music.
On the other hand, Franz Biebl’s lovely Ave Maria, which serves as the Evensong introit, benefits from the resonance. Originally for male voices, we hear it in the composer’s own SATB version. The performance is a good one, the music voiced with no little feeling, though on occasions the trebles’ intonation seemed to be slightly ‘in the crack’. It was a nice touch to use a chant by Michael Peterson for the
Psalm. Petersen was the organist of Tewkesbury Abbey when the Abbey School was founded and in that capacity he was the first director of the choir that is now the Schola Cantorum, leading it from 1973 until 1985. As I say, it’s a pleasing gesture to use his chant but in any case, the chant justifies its inclusion on musical grounds.
I like the Canticle settings by Grayston Ives. The ‘Magnificat’ displays an intelligent and perceptive response to the text and the independent organ part is very interesting. The concluding ‘Glory be’ is imposing – and we get a second chance to hear it at the end of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’. That, for the most part, is a tranquil, lyrical composition, though a noble climax is achieved at “To be a light…” The anthem is Philip Moore’s
Emmanuel, here receiving its first recording. It uses two choirs – SATB and a Girls’ Choir (SSA) – and organ. The SSA choir is formed by singers from the Dean Close School Chamber Choir and I was impressed by their pure, fresh singing. The outer sections are founded on a variant of the ancient melody to which nowadays we sing
Of the Father’s heart begotten. The centre of the work is more complex in nature – here the Milton organ is heard to telling effect.
Emmanuel is a piece that certainly caught my attention and I’m glad it’s made it onto disc. Congratulations to Simon Bell for an enterprising choice.
At the end of our ‘virtual Evensong’ we can imagine the singers and clergy leaving the quire in procession. They exit to the strains of Toccata, Fugue et Hymne sur Ave Maris Stella by the Belgian organist and composer, Flor Peeters. The piece is based on the plainchant melody,
Ave Maris Stella, which is heard imposingly on the pedals at the start and close of the exciting
Toccata. Here the Abbey’s Milton organ sounds particularly handsome. The tune is then the basis for a jig-like fugue in compound time. Here, there’s admirable energy in Carleton Etherington’s playing. Finally, Peeters reaches the apotheosis of the melody in the magisterial
Hymne. The organ sounds truly majestic here; one imagines that Etherington has, at least figuratively, pulled out all the stops. This fine voluntary is a thrilling conclusion to the programme.
I enjoyed this disc very much. The selection of music is enterprising and everything is very well performed. I commented earlier that on occasion the trebles seem to me to pitch ‘in the crack’. In my experience they’re far from alone in this among treble sections, though, and set against that, the boys’ tone has a good edge to it and they are fearless in the face of a demanding programme. The ATB sections of the choir all acquit themselves well and overall, I enjoyed listening to the Schola, who have evidently been well prepared by Simon Bell. Carleton Etherington makes a splendid contribution from the organ loft.
Gary Cole has engineered the recording very well. The choir and organ are reported with presence and one gets a good sense of the acoustic of the Abbey. As usual with Regent, the documentation is good. In addition to Canon Williams’ excellent essay, Simon Bell contributes useful notes on the music.
Sadly, many English parish churches now lack a strong musical tradition. On the evidence of this disc Tewkesbury Abbey very much bucks that trend. It would seem that there’s a robust musical establishment serving this magnificent medieval church. Long may it continue!
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) Ave Maria, Op 9, No 2 (1916) [2:21]
Jonathan Dove (b 1959) Missa brevis (2009) [13:25]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941) [4:40]
Franz Biebl (1906-2001) Ave Maria (1964) [7:25]
Philip Radcliffe (1905-1986) Preces and Responses (1972) [1:25]
Michael Peterson (1924-2006) Psalm 132 [4:25]
Grayston Ives (b 1948) Magnificat (Edington Service) (1975) [5:30]
Grayston Ives Nunc Dimittis (Edington Service) [3:43 ]
Philip Radcliffe Responses (1972) [6:24]
Philip Moore (b 1943) Emmanuel (2004)* (First recording) [5:42]
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Te Deum in C (1909) [7:39]
Flor Peeters (1903-1986) Toccata, Fugue et Hymne sur Ave Maris Stella (1933) [7:32]
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