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St. Paul's Cathedral Choir

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Canticles, St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, S. Johnson, A. Carwood
(Hyperion, 2014)
Washington National Cathedral plays host to visiting English choirs from time to time, this year in a three-part festival that began last fall, with a concert by the Westminster Abbey Choir. This spring brought the Choir of King's College, Cambridge (last month, not reviewed), and the Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, heard on Sunday evening. While this series of events has celebrated the beautiful musical tradition of the church choir of men and boys, a wistful feeling permeated the evening, as institutions that support such choirs, like Washington National Cathedral, struggle to remain financially solvent in the face of declining membership.

What remains unshakable is the beauty of the Victorian and Edwardian repertory that is the bread and butter of this choir. Settings of the grand Anglican translations of old liturgical texts like Vaughan Williams's Te Deum in G, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of Stanford's Evening Service in G, and John Ireland's Greater Love were robust, soaring, space-filling in the best way, the score or so of boys' voices on the top part balanced against the other three parts sung by a dozen men. As the Westminster Abbey Choir had done, Parry's epic, soupy-sentimental anthem I Was Glad represented the best of English royal ceremonial, evoked for the Anglophile royal fantasists in the crowd. Unlike the Westminster choir, the contemporary pieces on this program were not of the same quality: Will Todd's banal anthem The Call of Wisdom, the worst kind of Rutteresque Hallmarkiana, complete with the absurd use of the Zimbelstern stop; and Nico Muhly's repetitive but more effective Grief Is the Price We Pay for Love. Organist Simon Johnson had solid turns on two solo pieces, but William Walton's Orb and Scepter march cannot help but sound corny now, as understated and subtle as a circus calliope.

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The first half opened with much older music, Latin motets by Tallis and Byrd interspersed among the movements of Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. This music was written for the Catholic liturgy, often sung by small groups for Catholics in hiding from Anglican persecution, an association that was acknowledged in carefully couched terms by Andrew Carwood, the choir's director of music. In fact, as hinted at in the choir's program notes, Byrd embeds a reference to this fact in the Credo section of this Mass: at the words "Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam," Byrd has the voices repeat the word "Catholicam" insistently, the only place where a single word is repeated in this way, as if to underscore belief in one holy, catholic -- Catholic! -- and apostolic church. This more austere music, unaccompanied, did not sit as comfortably for the choir, which experienced some minor rhythmic misalignments here and there, and Byrd's high writing (the tenors soar up to B-flat with the rising line at "ascendit in caelum") brought out some stridency in the adult voices. On the other hand, the Kyrie and Sanctus movements were gorgeous in their subtle soft textures, and the Gregorian hymn Ecce tempus idoneum, sung in alternation with Tallis's organ setting of the tune, was a most memorable accompaniment to the entrance of the choir from the narthex.

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