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GRAMOPHONE (04/2024)
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Ad Fontes

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Reviewer :
Andrew Mellor


Here’s the second ‘sequence’ of liturgical music recorded by Westminster Cathedral Choir in the faraway surroundings of Buckfast Abbey, whose unparalleled acoustic, new Ruffatti organ and plenteous on-site accommodation are apparently luring church musicians to Devon to make recordings in ideal conditions.


There is some fine music-making on this approximation of the Easter Vigil service but, perhaps inevitably, there’s also the sense of a liturgy divorced from its actual community. Photos in the booklet show both a packed Westminster Cathedral and an empty Buckfast Abbey, as if to reinforce the fact that the congregation is conspicuous by its absence on this recording. More authentically, fiddly

liturgical passages include the long-winded (the Litany of the Saints – a not-so-thrilling memory from my own childhood singing the Easter Vigil at Buckfast) and the substandard (mediocre settings from Andrew Reid and Matthew Martin).


Then there are equally fiddly liturgical passages that carry a greater interest and authenticity while demonstrating what this choir can do better than any other – notably the accompanied Gregorian chants in which, as at home on Victoria Street, they overlay a beefy organ sound with an even beefier unison sound, sustaining a long, long line.


And, of course, polyphony. That characteristically gilded treble sound launches Lassus’s Jubilate Deo attacca while the rest is underpinned by that equally fortitudinous adult sound (though we don’t seem to hear boys on the alto line here, as was traditional with this choir). The steadily negotiated peaks and come-downs of Palestrina’s Sicut cervus carry a musical fluidity and the sense (at least) of liturgical authenticity. The same composer’s Angelus Domini descendit is another highlight, though again you need to lock in to the gravitas and ocean-liner smoothness that this choir favour over polyphonic agility. We also hear some good stile antico Monteverdi.


Overall, perhaps the sequence itself lacks the formal satisfaction of a Vespers service, while the choir seems to be in a period of transition. It is good of Ad Fontes to be chronicling that shift under the cathedral’s new Master of Music, Simon Johnson, even as the sound of his singers remains distinctive. But the choir’s last recording for the label, a sequence for Holy Week titled ‘Vexilla regis’ – also made at Buckfast but under its previous boss, Martin Baker – has the edge on this.

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