Way back last century (in 1986 to be precise) the choir of King’s College, Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury produced a recording of choral pieces by Bax and Finzi. At a time when fascination with ‘early music’ was at its height, this rather unfashionable choice of repertory was a revelation; its expansive text-setting and lush harmonies were a reminder of a then rather neglected corner of choral music, full of guilty but well-wrought pleasures. Some 30 years on, choirs are thankfully less narrow in their choices. James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces have delivered a more than worthy successor to that disc.
O’Donnell lavishes much care on Finzi’s masterly anthem, Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice; its long, contrasting paragraphs full of beautiful singing, whether the exultant “Lo, the
bread of life” or the meditative “soft, self-wounding Pelican” or the beguiling Amen. Careful attention to text mirrors Finzi’s own care in this regard. God is Gone Up is dispatched with appropriate élan and the Magnificat radiates unalloyed joy. Three smaller Finzi anthems confirm his appeal.
Bax is represented by contrasting carols, I Sing of a Maiden and This Worldes Joie – the first carefree and the second careworn. Given the considerable skill of the abbey choir, it is a pity that Bax’s greatest choral achievement, Mater Ora Filium wasn’t included. Three favourites by John Ireland, a more mainstream Anglican composer bring this gloriously romantic programme to a grand close.