This is, I suspect, the least well-known of the three seasonal discs released during the last few years by St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, yet it is arguably the best performance they have ever given on record.
A more appropriate title would perhaps be "Lent to Easter at St. Paul's," since the programme forms a sequence beginning with music for Lent, passing through the intensely solemn and emotionally-charged atmosphere of Passiontide before ending with some of the gems that traditionally accompany Easter Day services in many churches. The music for this sequence is all very striking, running the whole gamut of emotions from sadness to joy, sorrow to hope and despair to unalloyed delight.
The disc begins with "The Lent Prose," a plainchant responsory sung here to an English translation published in the New English Hymnal amongst other collections. One might not think that plainchant and the massive acoustic of St. Paul's would go terribly well together, but in this case they do, quite magically. Following it is a four-part introit by Richard Farrant, "Call to remembrance, O Lord," which is an epitome of Tudor polyphony at its most moving and effective. Also effective, and even simpler, is Edward Bairstow's setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: whilst Master of Music at York Minster, he composed a number of works in this vein, that are essentially Anglican psalm chants strung together. The atmosphere created in this extremely simple music, however, is truly remarkable. The inclusion of the chorus with treble duet from Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise" - "I waited for the Lord" - shows that music for Lent is not always solemn, and that the joy of the Easter message can still permeate Lent with a sense of hope.
The Passiontide music itself is even more emotionally-charged. Two important contributions to the choral repertoire for Passiontide are represented here: John Sanders' setting of "The Reproaches" juxtaposes elements of plainchant and a twentieth-century harmonic idiom to produce a very powerful and awe-inspiring work, fitting the text superbly (I can never forget the opening statement of "O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?" - it is haunting above anything else.) Brian Chapple's motet "Ecce lignum crucis" is more specific to the St. Paul's Cathedral Choir as it was written for them. It is a stark piece, dignified and if anything understated, yet very moving and by all means accessible - I wonder why it isn't heard more often elsewhere in English cathedrals... "Christus factus est pro nobis" is one of the most famous of Bruckner's unaccompanied motets, and here receives an absolutely stunning performance, as draining to listen to as it must have been to record. Similar intensity is brought by the choir to Lotti's famous eight-part setting of "Crucifixus etiam pro nobis" - a staple of cathedral choirs during Passiontide. In complete contrast - yet no less moving - is the three-verse hymn "Drop, drop slow tears" by Orlando Gibbons, performed here with one verse by unaccompanied trebles, then in four-part harmony, then finally with a solo treble (Anthony Way, incidentally, 'before he was famous') and the other voices humming. I am constantly amazed at how this arrangement can bring out emotions deeper even than the more 'sophisticated' through-composed works that precede it in this programme...
Easter is ushered in with another hymn: Charles Wood's harmonisation of a Dutch carol set to the words "This joyful Eastertide," which is guaranteed to appear on church music lists throughout the Christian world on Easter Day each year. It is always like a breath of fresh air, evocative of the fresh feeling that somehow always seems to emerge in worship on an Easter Sunday. Bairstow's setting of Psalm 114 is an Eastertide companion piece to his "Lamentation" - it too consists of a couple of related psalm chants, with an imaginative use of the organ to reflect "the presence of the God of Jacob." The Tudor style of Church Music is represented again in Peter Philips' intricate and joyful motet "Ecce vincit Leo;" at the end of the sequence is Britten's "Te Deum" in C, which sets a seal on the Eastertide feeling with its building of a cheerful atmosphere out of a quiet beginning, together with quirky rhythms and a glorious central section with a prominent part for an outstanding treble soloist.
As hinted above, this wonderful programme sounds glorious in the famed St. Paul's acoustic, but this is partly because the choir sings it so magnificently. John Scott draws the contrasting emotions out of them most intuitively; he is finely assisted by the playing of Andrew Lucas and his team of soloists (three trebles and two basses, all drawn from the choir) is immaculate.
Utterly recommendable, particularly for being such a clear window on a season of the Church's year that has produced such a fine body of music. (And even if you don't go in for the elements of worship at the heart of this programme, it is still worth hearing for the excellent performance St. Paul's Cathedral Choir.)