New releases with a royal flavour from the Choir of Westminster Abbey and Gallicantus

Review Published: 30 January 2011


Music from the Reign of King JamesMusic from the reign of King James I explores works by composers with links to both the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey, and whilst not all the music on this disc would have been sung in the Abbey during King James' reign, it would have most likely have been performed by musicians connected with the Abbey. The programme begins with an extremely attractive selection of verse anthems by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). This is a genre that suits The Choir of Westminster Abbey well; they have a clear and direct sound from which emerge some very high quality soloists all underpinned by Robert Quinney's superb organ playing. James O'Donnell paces each anthem beautifully never rushing the transition between the solo and the choir passages and encouraging a thoughtful response to the texts.

In Tomkins' exquisite unaccompanied settings of When David Heard and Then David Mourned the choir invoke a plaintive quality without compromising their clear tone. Possibly these two works are the most beautiful of the performances on this disc; especially stylish is the shaping of '…with his lamentation' in Then David Mourned. Gibbons' O clap your hands draws the disc to a fitting close. Performed here with organ it sounds far more regal than is often heard and is definitely a favourite of mine on this disc.

This album is a pleasing mix of familiar with under-represented composers like Edmund Hooper (c1553-1621) without admitting any music of a noticeably lower interest level. Quinney's organ playing is, as ever, an absolute delight and his programme notes offer a formidable companion to O'Donnell's stylish grasp of this repertoire. On listening to this disc I am struck by the quality of the individual solos which are not only often quite short but also tend to lie quite low in the various voice-ranges, altos particularly. These fleeting verses can often be something of a poisoned chalice for singers, but the gentlemen of the Abbey Choir handle them with an enviable eloquence. It occurs to me that The Choir of Westminster Abbey will soon be broadcast throughout the world as they sing at the next Royal Wedding, this disc assures us that they have never sounded so good.

An interesting companion is offered by Dialogues of Sorrow: Passions on the Death of Prince Henry (1612) from Gallicantus on the Signum label, a programme exploring the tide of tributes with which the death of the eldest son of King James I was met.

Opening with Robert Ramsey's splendid unaccompanied setting of When David Heard followed by What Tears, dear Prince? Sung by Christopher Watson and accompanied by Elizabeth Kenny (lute), it is immediately apparent that this programme is so much more than just another attractive choral selection.

Although the singers are all accomplished soloists, as an ensemble they achieve an almost telepathic blend that captures the intimacy of many of these texts, firmly removing the music from a chapel performance and repositioning it in the chamber. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the works by Weelkes and Tomkins which we modern listeners are used to hearing as church anthems. Of course, they are faster and closer here than one tends to hear them, and although initially distracting I was quickly won over. For instance Tomkins' When David Heard is 3'51 (Gallicantus) as opposed to 5'17 (The Choir of Westminster Abbey) on the disc above.

Some may find the link between Prince Henry's death and settings of David's mourning for Absalom a shade tenuous but there is compelling evidence for this connection; and even if you don't agree, it certainly makes for a great programme. There are some delightful moments almost in each piece on this album. In particular, Kenny's lute playing is, as always, exceedingly intimate and moving. The combination of sopranos Amy Moore and Clare Wilkinson—one brighter and lighter, the other with a more mezzo quality—is echoed in the choice of the two countertenors David Allsopp and Mark Chambers. Such individuality of voices gives the ensemble a far greater depth than one often hears in such young groups and, as such, draws the listener into an extremely attractive sound world.

After their stunning first album of music by Robert White, this new disc clearly shows that Gallicantus are an ensemble of note, and I look forward to more from their collaboration with Signum.

By Ed Breen