Sitting in the Gothic vaulted nave of Westminster Abbey, listening to Music for the Abbey performed by the Choir of Westminster Abbey and St James’s Baroque under the baton of James O’Donnell, one felt a great connection with the past.
The real joy of the only concert in this year’s Lufthansa Festival not to take place in St. John’s, Smith Square was being able to hear music performed in the setting for which it was originally composed.
For here were compositions by Purcell and Handel to commemorate no lesser events than the coronation of James II in 1685, the crowning of William and Mary as joint monarchs four years later, the funeral of Mary II in 1694, and the coronation of George II in 1727.
Purcell’s I was glad when they said unto me was composed to help music and ceremonials obscure the fact that the Catholic James II’s coronation omitted the Anglican communion, and was only rediscovered in 1976. This performance was characterised by superb phrasing and a beautifully balanced sound. The section beginning ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ was particularly strong as the male voices exquisitely underlay the trebles’ sweet, flowing lines.
The performances of Purcell’s Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem (composed for the 1689 coronation) and My heart is inditing were equally superb, with the latter demonstrating some wonderful ‘echoing’ of phrases by different parts at different times, before giving way to the exuberant ‘With joy and gladness shall they be brought’.
The St James’s Baroque was rock solid throughout, applying a precise and suitably understated approach to its playing. It stood out, in particular, in Purcell’s Burial Sentences with Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, 1694 when drum and brass played the two Marches that topped and tailed the piece. The first was played from the chancel so that the sound crept eerily through to the audience in the nave, whilst the second, which saw the players perched high aloft the rood screen, felt more immediate and final.
But whilst the choir knew intuitively how to approach the Purcell pieces, it seemed as if it had to think too hard about its performances of Handel’s Coronation Anthems to make these feel truly overwhelming. I couldn’t help feeling that had George II processed to this Zadok the Priest he might have been struck by the technical prowess demonstrated by choir and orchestra alike, but he wouldn’t have been blown away by the sound.
Nevertheless, there were still enough superlative moments in this performance, not least in the final anthem The King shall rejoice, to ensure that, with a great sense of history pervading the air from start to finish, this was a very special evening indeed.
Music for the Abbey is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Performance on 3 at 7.00pm this Friday, 22 May.