“The four coronations of the twentieth century were enormous and extravagant. Replete with festive pageantry, these ceremonies were joyful celebrations of British music, employing tremendous forces. Choirs from across London and beyond were marshalled to provide a chorus of over 400 voices; a full-size symphony orchestra was squeezed into Westminster Abbey, whilst bands of fanfare trumpeters led the pomp and celebration. In the imposing surroundings of Ely Cathedral, Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli bring the history, ceremony and liturgy of these extraordinary events to life. With his renowned creative flair, McCreesh’s painstaking research provides the springboard for their latest ground-breaking recreation project. The result is a joyful celebration of five centuries of choral music, performed with the same vast forces as were heard at the coronation services. Alongside an orchestra of rare early-twentieth century instruments, an extended Gabrieli Consort is amplified by the energetic sound and fresh faces of several hundred young singers from Gabrieli’s choral training programme Gabrieli Roar. The music is interspersed by the coronation liturgy, with Simon Russell Beale speaking the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury.” [Signum website]
Simon Russell Beale (speaker; Archbishop of Canterbury)
Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Matthew Martin (organ)
Gabrieli Roar
Chetham’s Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Recorded in England during July & September 2018 at either Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire), or the Royal Masonic School Chapel (Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire) or the Church of St Silas the Martyr (Kentish Town, London)
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD569 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 39 minutes
Reviewed: May 2019

What a barnstorming recording this is! Clear from comments in the generous annotation (including full texts, archive photos and the names of every performer) is the life-enhancing impact this project has had on players and singers alike: one is quoted as saying “No one in their right mind would conceive of a project like this.” Whether or not Paul McCreesh was in his “right mind”, he has created a corker of a release. It’s a tremendous achievement; not least for giving the opportunity for impressionable teenagers to work alongside seasoned professionals from whom McCreesh coaxes intensely committed performances ranging from Merbecke’s Lord’s Prayer to Stanford’s gloriously rousing Coronation Gloria. Taking music from each of last century’s four Coronations, this reconstruction largely follows that of the 1937 Order of Service with the oak-aged voice of Simon Russell Beale as the Archbishop of Canterbury delivering the spoken passages with reassuring gravitas.

Orchestral playing is no less impressive and begins with Elgar’s 1911 Coronation March; variously brooding, heroic and stately, it comes up freshly buffed under McCreesh’s flexible direction, so too the Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 which bristles with lean, muscular energy. The ink-still-wet quality continues with a sumptuous rendition of Herbert Howells’s The King's Herald: its grandiloquence could be mistaken for Walton; his Crown Imperial (the shorter revision, so not as it was heard in 1937 conducted by Boult) closes the collection in a rendition that oozes warmth and affection.

Choral singing from Gabrieli Roar and Gabrieli Consort is marvellously impressive. There’s a splendidly affirmative Old Hundredth from Vaughan Williams, choirs and orchestra keenly alert to McCreesh’s galvanising direction that also brings tremendous exhilaration to Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. If treble voices are not always secure, there’s no denying the thrilling climax. Handel’s Zadok the Priest is also striking but beware of the massive overload at the choir’s first entry – light the blue-touch paper and stand well back. Otherwise, it’s a well-paced account and Ely Cathedral’s organ provides the icing on the cake.

Parry’s made-to-measure I Was Glad unfolds with great solemnity and blazes with conviction, a performance of devastating emotional power, its climaxes electrifying. David Matthews’s newly commissioned Recessional and National Anthem are also stunning, both richly atmospheric and with singing that will bring a lump to the throat. There is also Elgar’s tellingly orchestrated O hearken Thou, impressing for its tangy woodwind colouring and exquisitely tender singing. Tallis’s Litany is subtle, and while Purcell’s Hear my Prayer isn’t quite the sum of its expressive parts Gibbons’s simple Amen unfolds as a thing of wonder; less so his hard-driven O Clap your Hands, but Rejoice in the Lord alway (attributed to Redford) is superbly buoyant, and there is much to enjoy in two portions of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G-minor such as devotional fervour in the ‘Sanctus’, although an English translation by Maurice Jacobson for the 1953 service does not do the composer any favours.

McCreesh has conceived and executed a magnificent project, extending well beyond its musical and historical framework, creating something of inestimable value for all of us.

 

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