I've just ordered this CD, so haven't heard it yet, but the fine reputation of the Westminster Abbey choir ever since Simon Preston took the helm, and certainly continuing with James O'Donnell (formerly at Westminster Cathedral) guarantees that the performances will be superb. The repertoire alone, predominantly modern, deserves a few words.
A program of music inspired by the bible's own extra-terrestrial beings is long overdue. This would have been an opportunity also for a Missa L'Homme Armé (this song having been baptized, as it were, in the old days by seeing St. Michael in that role). For the organ, two pieces by Messiaen suggest themselves: "Les Anges" from La Nativité, or "L'ange aux Parfums" from Les Corps Glorieux; L'Ange a la Trompette by Jacques Charpentier; the undeservedly obscure Unueberwindlich Staerke Held, Sankt Michael by Johann Nepomuk David, or the even harder-to find Dux Michael by his son Johann Christian. But including all this too would require a double album. Maybe they will make a sequel someday?
The offerings here are certain to be a treat. The Sequence for Saint Michael by Howells is a searingly vivid late work, and very challenging. Even a first-rate choir might essay it only in a good year. The moment Michael slays the dragon with a steely fury summons a chillingly complex chord from the organ, perhaps the closest Howells ever came to writing a tone cluster. The whole work is wrapped around the grief he felt all his life over the death of his own nine-year-old son Michael, yearning for a heavenly reunion while hardly daring to hope that there will really be one. Alcuin's medieval poem provides a wonderful textual framework for such emotions. A listener won't soon forget the experience.
Why Tippett's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis? This could be a mystifying choice in its seemingly alien mood of dissonant defiance. Tippett-- skip it, someone once said. But this setting can grow on us when we bear in mind that the composer was "a political figure" who viewed the Magnificat as "the battle cry of the working classes." Why not, for once, such a grittily incarnational interpretation of this supremely incarnational hymn (in response, of course to an angelic message)? For (i.e. because-- to Tippett a particularly important word in the canticle) not all angels are good. Without this angelic imtimation of divinely appointed dignity, what leg would any of us downtrodden in this world by fallen angels-- powers and principalities-- possibly have to stand on? A further clincher for this occasion lies in the Nunc Dimittis. According to George Guest, choirmaster of St. John's, Cambridge when it was written for them, Tippett imagined Simeon exhausted on his deathbed, too weak to voice the words on his own, able only to moan, "Lord, Lord" while an angel sings them for him.
Laus Deo by the late Jonathan Harvey transcribes organ music that the composer heard an angel playing in a dream.