The Choir of Westminster Abbey

Concert Hall (Musica Viva)


Professional production

William Fairburn, Daniel Parr, Benjamin Turner, Julian Stocker. Names don’t come any more English than this, and they’re the kind we tend to associate with the choristers of the great English cathedrals, those angelic faces framed by floppy blond hair, with rosy cheeks and big blue eyes. “Not angels, my Lord, but Anglicans,” as Sellars and Yeatman quipped in 1066 and All That, the book which gave many people of my generation their first taste of the delights of muddled history.

But what about Hee-Rak Yang, Trojan Nakade, Maxim Del Mar and, my favourite of them all, Beans Malawi? These are the new faces of English society reflected in the youngsters of the Choir of Westminster Abbey, a cultural mix that not only demonstrates the melting pot that is 21st century England, but proves the universality of western sacred music, and the continuing attraction of choral singing.

Musica Viva always offers an exciting mix of performances, but there seems to be one special concert each year that fills the Concert Hall and makes parking impossible. The Choir of Kings College Cambridge we’ve heard often before, but this is the Westminster Abbey choir’s first tour of Australia, and they come with all kinds of special baggage, for Edward the Confessor’s great cathedral has been the venue for the coronation of every monarch since 1066, and is the final resting place of 17 of them. Many royal marriages and funerals take place here, the most recent being the funerals of the Princess of Wales and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; and with the tombs of Richard II, Queen Elizabeth I, the poet Chaucer, novelist Charles Dickens and other iconic figures of English culture, the Abbey, as it’s known, is a national shrine.

But it’s also a working church, with a full staff of priests and regular daily services, and its choir, although famous in the musical world, is central to the daily choral worship, so it is a privilege to be able to listen to them outside their normal place of work, singing some of the best sacred music of the western church.

And that’s why there was a full house, because it was more than just the thrill of seeing the boys and men in their red cassocks. It was a chance to hear music that’s usually only performed in Brisbane’s two cathedrals, although (thanks mainly to those great local musicians Christopher Wrench and Emily Cox) there are other concerts in Brisbane that give us occasional glimpses into the glories of sacred music.

It was a beautifully balanced program, reflecting the full repertoire of this great choir, ranging from plainsong and early Renaissance music to works of the present day, even, in this case, two pieces by the Australian composer Ross Edwards (born 1943) . There’s so much more to church music than that good old Anglican Hubert Parry (although what soul isn’t thrilled by the tones of his setting of Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said unto me”, with its resonances of every coronation since 1902?).

The only other musical work so honoured is Zadok the Priest from Handel’s “Coronation Anthems”, commissioned by George II in 1727, and used at every coronation since. The choir performed both of these superbly, their voices bursting through the insistent organ introductions with a glorious bang. Real shivers-down-the-spine stuff.

But the concert began with works by three great 16th century church composers William Byrd, Thomas Tallis (“Tallis is dead, and music dies”, wrote the great composer’s equally great pupil William Byrd on that sad occasion in 1585), Peter Phillips and Christopher Tye: all short pieces but equally expressive of fervent devotion.

You can’t leave out Bach, of course, who was here represented by the Toccata in C Major BWV 564i, which required some very tricky footwork from the choir’s sub-organist Robert Quinney, who looked like a jerky puppet at times as the flowing lines of his cassock hid his feet from the audience so that the music seemed to proceed forth of its own accord.

After Bach (the choir sang the profound funeral motet Komm, Jesu, komm BWV 229, which is capable of moving many people to tears, and did) and Henry Purcell, we jumped into the 20th century for more chills and thrills, the highlight being, for me at least, Song for Athene by the holy minimalist John Tavener, a piece which, as I immediately remembered, was played as the recessional at Lady Diana’s funeral in the Abbey ten years ago. Written not for that sad princess, but for the daughter of a friend of Tavener’s, this piece combines a continual vocal bass drone in low F with a melodic line which is almost unbearable in its intensity. It uses lines from >Hamlet along with phrases from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and moves from a melodious farewell (“May flights of angels wing thee to thy rest”) to the final note of positive hope, “Weeping at the grave creates the song. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.” More spine-tingling all round.

And a final remark on the visual aesthetic of this performance. Instead of the lightening effect of the white surplices that church choirs usually wear, this time the red cassocks were unadorned with those pleated overgarments, and the phalanx of solid scarlet created an effect of deep Baroque richness which was augmented by the red lighting reflected from the burnished timber and 88 speaking stops of the great Klais Orgelbau in the Concert Hall. Was it this effect, or the deep German voicing of the organ, which made me feel that the tone of the choir was a little heavier than I expected, or was it that the youngest choristers were too small to travel, so that I missed the airy notes of their delicate soprano voices?

Or was it simply, as Christopher Wrench suggested to me at interval, that there’s a huge difference between the acoustic of a Gothic cathedral and that of a modern concert hall, and that I shouldn’t expect exactly the same sound.

Whatever the reason, this was a concert to cherish, remarkable not just for the quality of the music, which is beyond reproach, but for the mix of styles and periods in the program. And thankfully, there were no interminable encores, just one quiet Nunc Dimittis to send us all home with a sense of peace and finality. This is music programming as it ought to be.

Musica Viva always offers a superb series of concerts, so if you’re not already on their mailing list, check their website to keep up-to-date.

Organist and Master of the Choristers; James O’Donnell

Sub-organist: Robert Quinney

One performance only: 23 October 2007

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 22nd October 2007)