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A Year at Bristol
Paul Walton (organ)
The Choir of Bristol Cathedral/Mark Lee
rec. 2017, Bristol Cathedral, England REGENT REGCD514 [62:11]
The programme spans the ecclesiastical year as seen from the choir stalls of Bristol Cathedral. Presumably all this music is in the regular repertory of the choir, and while it appears to be a somewhat random collection of anthems (as is the choice of key points across the church’s year), the performances have about them the air of familiarity; this is music which this choir is well used to singing.
Bristol is a slightly strange animal in the menagerie of great English cathedrals. Its musical roots are firmly planted in the 16th century, but very few of its long succession of organists contributed significantly to the great canon of English cathedral music, and none is represented on this recording. Possibly Bristol has been more prone than many English cathedrals to the vagaries of liturgical fashion, and the result is that not all of these anthems feel entirely at ease in the context of the cathedral’s musical worship. Clearly the choir has no problems with the more recent works, but the 19th century works from the Catholic traditions lack a sense of real conviction; they are sung accurately and cleanly (even if the tuning of the top line teeters dangerously on the brink in Bruckner’s Christus factus est), but one suspects the choir’s collective heart is not quite in it. The same cannot be said of Paul Walton who clearly luxuriates in the massive organ part of Widor’s overblown Surrexit a mortuis.
The choir is certainly enthusiastic in the earlier works, but in these, genuine stylistic conviction seems elusive. A burst of energy at the start of Byrd’s Vigilate seems over-optimistic and the performance eventually flags. Tallis’s Videte miraculum finds the lower voices beautifully measured and balanced, but they are overwhelmed by a harsh and ill-disciplined top line. Overall accuracy and security of pitch here are not really enough to compensate for a general lack of finesse.
Much more within the choir’s comfort zone are the early 20th century works from Pablo Casals and Vaughan Williams. There is a lovely warmth and richness of sound in the former’s O vos omnes, while the latter’s Valiant-for-Truth has great intensity and encompasses with impressive ease a particularly wide dynamic range.
It is in the more recent works that the choir seems at its most confident and self-assured. A slightly forced account of James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn nevertheless is noteworthy for the precision of the choir’s tuning and the well-managed final diminuendo. Even better are Sally Beamish’s In the Stillness and Kenneth Leighton’s Drop, Drop Slow tears, two intensely beautiful and atmospheric anthems to which the choir responds with real affection and a touching sincerity. Treble soloist Ben Saunders brings a nice touch of innocence to James Whitbourn’s bouncy Christmas anthem Hodie with Paul Walton’s spiky organ accompaniment giving it all a tremendous lift.
Best of all are two richly expressive and compellingly fluid accounts of music by successive organists from up the road – Gloucester Cathedral. John Sanders’s extended setting of The Reproaches, has clearly struck a chord with these singers who present an atmospheric and at times impassioned account of it. In the final years of his life Herbert Sumsion underwent a remarkable Indian Summer of creativity, producing a number of wonderful anthems not all of which have earned as firm a place in the repertory as they deserve (who has his settings of St Patrick’s Breastplate and There is a green hill in their regular repertory?). His tremendously dramatic setting of famous verses from Psalm 137 In Exile (“By the waters of Babylon”) for unaccompanied double choir dates from 1981 has clearly established itself in Bristol’s repertory and, greatly aided by Andy Marshall’s fervent bass solo, Mark Lee draws from them a performance which is little short of inspirational.
One suspects the inclusion of David Bednall’s O Clap Your Hands caused a few problems in placing it within the liturgical calendar – it is listed on the programme as being associated with the Feast of Christ the King (a relative newcomer to the feast days of the church’s year) – but no matter, the gift of the anthem to Lee and his choir from the composer specifically for this recording, meant that it was going to be there whatever the limitations of the programme. And in its mood of high-octane celebration it makes a very fitting conclusion to the disc, and presents the choir in all its unfettered magnificence.
William Byrd (1540-1623) – Vigilate [4:27]
James MacMillan (b.1959) - O radiant dawn (3:33)
Sally Beamish (b.1956) – In the stillness [2:07]
James Whitbourn (b.1963) – Hodie [2:38]
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) – Videte miraculum [8:38]
Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995) – In Exile [6:49]
Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) – Drop, drop slow tears [2:39]
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) – Christus factus est [4:46], Ave Maria [2:57]
Pablo Casals (1876-1973) – O vos omnes [3:09]
John Sanders (1993-2003) – The Reproaches [8:45]
Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937) – Surrexit a mortuis [4:24]
Ralph Vaughan Williams ((1872-1958) – Valiant-for-Truth [5:13]
David Bednall (b.1979) – O clap your hands [2:03]
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