18 Feb 2023

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Simon Preston
Decca Catalogue No: 4852118

This timely collection of rereleases includes two heard for the first time complete on CD and covers a decade of recording from one of the key partnerships in choral music and period instruments of the 1970s. I admit upfront that I listened through rose-tinted headphones, transported back to a time when my local WHSmiths accepted book tokens as payment for LPs. I can still picture my mother appearing at the bottom of the stairs in her candlewick dressing gown to chastise me for playing Vivaldi’s Nulla in mundo pax sincera loudly at breakfast (“for Chrissakes Ed, your father just woke up and thought he’d died in the night!”) I quickly learned to associate those distinctive L’oiseau-Lyre covers with the sort of music and the type of singing I liked, whilst enjoying how they made my parents worry openly that one day I would grow up to be a musicologist.

Younger listeners might not grasp the essential fondness many of us retain for this choir and would, wrongly in my opinion, focus on the lack of finesse in several places – such as the opening of Bach’s Magnificat – or wonder at the dogged adherence to demonstrative choral discipline – the surge on ‘MOrtis nostrae’ in Bruckner’s Ave Maria, perhaps. But few could disagree with John Steane’s early judgement in this magazine: ‘Simon Preston is surely producing one of the best choirs in the country.’ (07/74). Not only were they one of the best but these discs have aged exceptionally well thanks to their superb production techniques. Any small stylistic misgivings I have are outweighed by countless instances of choral excellence: the long, spinning phrases of the trebles in Fauré’s Ave verum, or the sheer enjoyment of Vivaldi’s Gloria and the zippy chorus Domine, Fili unigenite in particular. Considering these nineteen albums in chronological order of recording reveals an enormous musical appetite to say nothing of an impressively demanding schedule fitted around substantial weekly liturgical commitments.

In the renaissance works it is striking how robust the choir sounds under Preston, drawing, perhaps, as much influence from the strident confidence of Westminster Cathedral as is does from the detailed, careful work of King’s College Cambridge. Notable is the pleasingly prominent alto tone, a feature I also associate with recordings by The Clerkes of Oxenford around the same time. Beginning with Byrd’s five- and four-part masses, despite the familiarity of these works and the changing styles of Latin pronunciation this has aged rather well. The debt to Sir David Willcocks (and Boris Ord) is obvious in the somewhat sculpted phrasing, each carefully crafted section replete with expressive dynamics and meticulous rallentandos at cadences. In many ways it’s a masterclass in choral discipline but overall Preston’s interventionist approach occasionally denies the polyphony chance to flow. Easy to say now, but nearly half a century ago this was ground-breakingly uncluttered I’m sure. With Lassus, however, the sound is grand and confident, possibly closer to Westminster Cathedral's style, especially in Omnes de Saba venient which has a thrilling, if not slightly relentless energy. Preston and his singers seem to have been particularly inspired by these larger textures and it is the more expansive moments that provide their most impassioned arch-shaped phrasing and steely tone. Listen also for glorious alto moments in Salve Regina. [...]

For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (March 2023)

17 Feb 2023

The Golden Renaissance

The Golden Renaissance: William Byrd
Stile Antico
Decca 4853951

Byrd’s later years are a fascinating time for Tudor music, and for this 400th anniversary Stile Antico dedicate a whole album to his works. It's the second release in a trilogy which also celebrates anniversaries of Josquin des Prez and Palestrina.

Beginning with the potentially autobiographical song, Retire, my soul, consider thine estate, Stile Antico pitch the music slightly lower and more wistfully than The Sixteen’s recent release (Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets 1611) and comparing the two there is an instant warmth about Stile Antico’s version; a fond, Werther’s Original hue that goes on to infuse this whole programme. And who’s to say that’s wrong? Certainly not Byrd Scholar Kerry McCarthy whose superb programme note emphasises the 'relative peace' offered to the composer in his twilight years as he lived 'under the protection of local Catholic gentry.' Built around a deeply moving performance of his Mass for Four Voices, the Propers for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are also performed. These are notoriously difficult pieces but Stile Antico sing them with great poise, particularly the complex flourishes in Propter veritatem. As an ensemble they also deftly navigate the many textural changes that Byrd demands such as the exquisite three-part verse Assumpta est Maria in which I especially enjoyed the imitation on gaudet exercitus. [...]

For the full text of this review please see Gramophone magazine (March 2023)