The Choir of Westminster Abbey

The Choir of Westminster AbbeyClose your eyes.

Imagine the soaring vaults, the stately gothic arches, the stained glass windows, the antique grandeur of the stone pillars….now you can hear this splendid choir in a more appropriate setting than the rather dead acoustic of the Adelaide Festival Theatre.

Not that there is anything wrong with the Festival Theatre – it’s fabulous for many things. But it did not do the twenty senior boys and twelve Lay Vicars of the Westminster Abbey Choir justice. 

Nevertheless, it was a privilege to have them sing in Adelaide, and the faithful chor-o-philes and Anglicans turned out in droves to revel in their rich sonorities. They are clearly more used to a friendlier acoustic, but they still managed to thrill in patches.

Under the delicate and restrained direction of James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Abbey, the choir soon warmed to a sense of ensemble in the crisply sung fugue section of Purcell’s I was Glad, which was immediately followed by a somewhat pedestrian rendition of John Blow’s Salvator mundi. The excruciatingly lachrymose tensions of this piece were not there, so that the exquisite ball-tearing dissonances were skimmed over, making a rather monochrome result. Pity. Perhaps the Abbey acoustic might have helped.

But the choir really came into its own in its very own pieces. As James O’Donnell pointed out, this is the choir of the Coronation church, and in pieces naturally written for such occasions, this choir came home. They tossed off a splendid performance of Zadok the Priest (from the 1727 Coronation of George II, and sung at every subsequent one) with appropriate majesty, showing off crisp staccatos and neatly unified melismas. 

This is a disciplined and well matched choir. Whether singing in any number of parts from four to eight, the balance was good and pitch was always accurate. The pure whiteness of the English treble tradition was well displayed, although we could have enjoyed a little more variation in texture, tone and subtlety. The obvious competence and professionalism of the Lay Vicars (the men of the choir) shone through in their fine phrasing and control.

The second half of the concert introduced more variety with 20th century compositions. We were treated to splendidly accurate octave leaps in Ross Edwards’ Lord’s Prayer, and to some masterful and sensitive pitch holding by two basses who sustained a pedal F throughout John Tavener’s beautiful Song for Athene, which conveyed an almost Buddhist serenity, emphasised by the lighting hinting at an orange-ness in the choir’s red robes.

One of the highlights of the concert was the superbly energetic playing of the magnificent Jubilee Organ by Sub-Organist Robert Quinney. He made the most of this organ’s shrill, metallic registers, masterfully displaying his talent in Bach’s Toccata in F which features a great pedal note with complex patterns dancing all about above it. It is a pity we couldn’t see Quinney’s fabulous fancy footwork, hidden by his red cassock, but he delighted our ears and spirits with his spirited performances. He obviously relished bringing out the potential of this fine instrument’s suitability for these particular pieces. This organ should be played more often.

The choir came into its own once again in one of its home pieces, closing as it started with a version of I Was Glad, this time by Sir Hubert Parry. The complexities of weaving between organ and choir were well managed, but perhaps they missed the lofty arches. The audience made allowances, and loved it, and were rewarded with a treat of an encore – one of the finest performances of the night - in Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis. And so they departed in peace, and satisfied.


The Choir of Westminster Abbey Australian Tour

Sydney Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House | Thursday 18th October @ 7.00pm
Sydney Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House | Saturday 20th October @ 8.00pm
Brisbane Concert Hall, QPAC | Tuesday, 23rd October @ 7.00pm
Canberra Great Hall, Parliament House | Thursday 25th October @ 7.00pm
Adelaide Adelaide Festival Theatre | Saturday 27th October @ 8.00pm
Melbourne Hamer Hall, the Arts Centre | Sunday 28th October @ 6.00pm
Perth Perth Concert Hall | Tuesday 30th October @ 7.30pm

Tickets:
National Booking Hotline (9am - 5.00pm Mon - Fri EST) | 1 800 688 482 or | www.musicaviva.com.au

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