Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Westminsteriensis: Euge indeed

Two Sunday Masses and the Red Mass provided the perfect opportunity for me to reacquaint myself with the liturgical life of Westminster Cathedral. Beautiful Byrd, Glorious Guerrero, Resplendent Red Robes and Tremendous Tye.

Two Sundays ago it was the Byrd five part Mass and the stunning Guerrero motet O Sacrum Convivium, a staple of the Cathedral Choir - at least since the ground breaking recording under Hill entitled Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance - and which was on this occasion rendered superbly well.

Barristers-at-law in procession, some in full-bottomed wigs
The Red Mass last Thursday was a splendid occasion marking the commencement of the legal year (specifically the Michaelmas Law Term which runs from the first working day in October following the feast of St Michael the Archangel to Christmas). The judicial procession was led by The Right Honourable the Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, Justice of the United Kingdom Supreme Court (since 2009 the highest court in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland for civil cases only, formerly the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords which was a special committee that carried out the judicial functions of the House of Lords). Other judges from the High Court ("red judges") and Circuit Court ("purple judges") were also in attendance as were many barristers (the Queen's Counsel notable for their full-bottomed or ceremonial wigs) and solicitors, your humble scribe included.

Justice of the Supreme Court, clad in robes by Ede & Ravenscroft, judicial tailors since 1689
"Red judges" of the High Court of Justice
Circuit Court Judges, gloves in hand
The Mass was celebrated by the Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, the excellent Archbishop Mennini, and the affable Cardinal Nichols sat in choir and gave the homily. The Full Choir sang Victoria's Missa O Quam Gloriosum and motets by Palestrina and Byrd. The Introit was the hymn Veni Creator Spiritu, perhaps the only time at a solemn choral Mass at Westminster Cathedral that a hymn replaces the ordinary introit (which I imagine would be Spiritus Domini as the Mass is a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit)?

The Cathedral Choir singing splendid Spanish polyphony
His Excellency Archbishop Mennini doing the honours
His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols in choir dress
The order of service
Then last Sunday I was thrilled and delighted to hear the full four parts of the Agnus Dei of Christopher Tye's masterpiece the Missa Euge Bone!! Normally, for entirely understandable reasons, only two (sometimes three) of the four movements are selected to form "Agnus Dei I" and "Angus Dei II", often sandwiching the Ecce Agnus Dei. Certainly that has been my experience at most places where this Mass finds itself among the repertoire. And yet... musically I have always felt that the balance was missing. The Missa Euge Bone is a curious Mass and the Agnus Dei has some interesting harmonic passages and oddly "abrupt" sounding endings (characteristic of much of Tye's Latin music). But when the piece is taken as a whole its true magnificence is revealed. Most importantly, the stratospheric "nobis" that appears from nowhere to complete the third movement, after the main melody has been repeated mesmerisingly what seems like a dozen (but is probably about four) times, is the first of two climaxes that depend on each other for maximum efficacy. The second is of course the "mundi" of the final movement, with its glorious alto and soprano lines that arch perfectly over a muscular bass undercurrent, leading into the extended concluding passage "Dona nobis pacem". But it makes sense only by reference to the end of the third movement. Cut this out and the final movement is bereft of the musical continuity that is required to give it proper context.

Thus, just as there may be strong liturgical arguments in favour of cutting out say the middle two movements, so there are musical reasons for declining to do so. It may be that Westminster has chosen to sing the whole four movements only as recently as 2014 - prior to that the Agnus Dei of the Missa Euge Bone appears (at least on some occasions) to have been sung incomplete (see here and here). If so, 2014 saw a most pleasing development and one that set a precedent apparently being followed in 2015.

Recordings of the Missa Euge Bone are relatively abundant in fact, and more remarkably they are mostly of a consistently high standard. The pick of the Cathedral/College choir bunch would have to be the Winchester Cathedral Choir recording under David Hill (Hyperion), with very fine efforts by Ely Cathedral Choir under Trepte (with the most resonant acoustic) (ASV), and King's College Choir under Ledger (EMI). A more recent recording by the Westminster Abbey Choir under O'Donnell (also Hyperion) is the least satisfying though the singing is hardly unrefined (indeed the men's voices are arguably the most refined of any of the Cathedral/College recordings) - it just fails to make an impression on one as much as the others do. Perhaps it is because it is the most 'clinical' of the recordings. For instance, the Agnus Dei is taken so briskly and matter-of-factly that it is starved of much of its inherent intensity. An easy first overall choice would have been the intimate but warm sounding Oxford Camerata recording under Summerly (Naxos) had it not been for an astonishing thing: the first movement of the Agnus Dei curse it is omitted - and no liturgical arguments can be brought to bear here!! This is a crying shame because the Mass in all other respects is given a stunning performance. Most annoyingly, no reason for the omission is given, leading one to speculate as to a cause. Was the first movement recorded but deemed to be deficient, not re-recorded and so edited out? Was it edited out accidentally (there was certainly space left on the CD for the extra movement)? Or did Summerly decide not to record it at all for some reason of scholarship? Even with only three movements, Summerly's Agnus Dei clocks in at 5 minutes 46 seconds - compared with O'Donnell whose four movements last only 5 minutes and 6 seconds. Hill completes the four movements in 8 minutes and 7 seconds. The Sixteen have also recorded just the Agnus Dei of the Mass (Coro) - a recording of the whole Mass may well have seen it take first place. As it is, it would be a difficult thing to choose which of Summerly or Hill to take to the desert island.

Though slightly rough around the edges this recording in the spacious acoustic of the Ely Cathedral Lady Chapel has a lot to recommend it, not least of which is the`fact that Tye was once the Master of the Choristers at Ely.  

This recording from a Mass in Amsterdam is about as fast as the O'Donnell recording but doesn't feel nearly as rushed 

Meticulous attention to detail makes this recording by Sir Philip Ledger and oldie but a goodie

The Sixteen under the steady hand of Harry Christophers tackle Tye with customary aplomb

With the Westminster Cathedral Choir in such fine form at the moment (just listen to the acclaimed recording of the Byrd Masses), and with the Missa Euge Bone receiving a remarkable treatment under Baker, it is a shame that the Cathedral Choir cannot go straight into a recording studio and give us another version of this English renaissance masterpiece on disc for posterity - I dare say it would have the potential to trump all previous recordings.

A previous recording of the Missa Euge Bone by Kings College under Sir David Willcocks (Argo/Decca) which has never made it to digital format as far as I can tell

To account for the lack of a Kyrie in the Missa Euge Bone, there would seem to be three options: (a) use the third option at the penitential rite (the least desirable solution); (b) sing a chant Kyrie (the most logical solution); and (c) use the sprinkling rite. The latter solution was chosen at Westminster Cathedral so we had a rare opportunity to sing the Asperges Me during an ordinary form Mass, as well as to hear the beautiful prayer at the blessing of the water (and salt as is customary at Westminster).

Well done all concerned.

Most photos of the Red Mass are sourced from the Westminster Archdiocesan Flickr account. Copyright Archdiocese of Westminster.