From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral / Martin Baker (Hyperion CDA67707)

21 October 2009 4 stars

From the vaults of Westminster CathedralThis latest album from one of the world's most famous choirs is a collection of chant, polyphony and organ improvisations marking the start of the church year, Advent, and running through Christmas to Epiphany and the Presentation of our Lord. Chant and polyphony have formed the backbone of the repertoire at Westminster Cathedral ever since R. R. Terry became choirmaster in 1902 and bought with him a wealth of experience in early choral music at a time when it was still a rarity in Britain. The choir continues to be a leading interpreter of this music and, as this disc illustrates, they also have a healthy appetite for modern repertoire and regularly commission works for liturgical use.

The disc contains three masses. Advent opens with the plainsong Rorate caeli with its beautiful opening motif begun by a single treble voice and then continues with Victoria's magnificent Descendit Angelus Domini. It's always thought-provoking to hear plainsong sung at Westminster Cathedral since the trebles have a particularly distinctive timbre that, although mellowing in recent years, is an important ingredient in the unique sound of the choir. The mass ordinary is the plainsong setting Mass X – Alme Mater accompanied by Matthew Martin, assistant master of music. Propers are settings from William Byrd's Gradualia, 1605, for the Lady Mass in Advent. The polyphony is characteristically exciting although, in my opinion, possibly too robust for a few of Byrd's more nimble passages.

The Christmas mass begins with a plainsong psalm and then Martin's sublime setting of Adam lay bounden which was originally written for the Cardinall's Musicke. This is possibly the best performance from the trebles on the whole disc and the effect is quite mesmeric as fragments of the chant Ave maris stella weave over a more medieval-inspired harmony. George Malcolm's Missa Ad praesepe then provides a kitsch injection of Christmas fervor into the middle part of this disc with a thrilling improvised organ strepitus (a wild celebratory noise) by Martin Baker in the Gloria. This is a mass setting that bears some repeated listening as it contains a few beautiful moments as well as some fine singing.

For Epiphany and the Presentation, plainsong – Ecce advenit – is followed by Monteverdi's four-voice mass and the motet Omnes de Saba by Lassus. This motet is superbly sung with plenty of time left for the generous double-choir phrases to roll around the cathedral. The Monteverdi however, is slightly too fast which leads to some rather untidy melismas particularly noticeable in 'laudamus te' of the Gloria and at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. This is fiendishly difficult music at the best of times but with big voices in a big space I feel it needs slightly more time to breath than it is given here.

The disc ends with a beautiful Magnificat setting by Maurice Beven which alternates with mode 8 chant and Martin Baker's organ improvisations used as festal accretions. Wood's luscious Nunc Dimitis shows more of this remarkable choir's versatility before Martin Baker closes the disc with a really fabulous improvisation Marche des Rois mages which not only showcases his talent and Westminster Cathedral's organ, but also gives a sense of the sheer size of the building that that choir sings in on a daily basis. Only when we understand the expanse of Westminster Cathedral do we begin to understand how singing so much early repertoire in this space has influenced the sound of the choir.

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral is therefore not only a procession through the cathedral for the beginning of the church's year but also a revealing glimpse into the daily work of this famous choir and the huge repertoire that it performs. Accompanied by some of the best CD notes that I have read in a while (by Jeremy Summerly) this album is well timed for the next advent season and should please choral enthusiasts everywhere.

By Ed Breen