David Truslove listens to A Year at Llandaff, the new release from the Choir of Llandaff Cathedral and finds signs of robust choral health in Wales.
This recent disc from Regent Records and the Choir of Llandaff Cathedral is a heartening sign of robust choral health in the Welsh capital. Recorded over three days in June 2022, there’s no sign of the decline or thinning of tone that has afflicted certain choirs in the UK two years after Covid 19. Indeed, I last heard the Llandaff choir at a weekday evensong in February 2020 and was hugely impressed by the gutsy singing, and this recording bears copious evidence that the quality of singing has survived unscathed from the experiences of the pandemic. Clearly, the choir is thriving under its Director of Music Stephen Moore.
The title of this compilation CD references a traversal of the church’s year from Advent to All Saints’, with anthems chosen to reflect the varied musical moods of each season, while highlighting specific events in Christ’s life. With a couple of exceptions, the selections feature work drawn from the 20th and 21st centuries with well-known contemporary composers Bob Chilcott, Jonathan Dove and Will Todd alongside organist/composers Simon Lole, Philip Moore and Healey Willan. The lion’s share of the singing is undertaken by the boy choristers and layclerks, while a handful of pieces are sung jointly by boys and girls (with the adults) and three works by girls with the ‘back row’.
Of those works featuring the girls, I particularly enjoyed the Advent hymn Creator of the stars of light. This arrangement by John Scott is given a well-paced and shapely account that showcases the girls’ natural feel for the ebb and flow of the original plainchant. Wilby’s Wondrous Cross (Passiontide) generates a pleasing tone, while Edward Elgar’s Ave Maria (Annunciation) produces a more ardent response. No less absorbing is Chilcott’s folk-inspired Nova! Nova!, an energetic carol generating all the excitement of the Angel Gabriel’s visitation to the Virgin Mary. By contrast, Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of In the bleak mid-winter is suitably lugubrious and, if its augmented chord in the organ accompaniment outstays its welcome, Holst’s original melody never seems to lose its appeal. The season of Lent has inspired all the great composers involved with the church and so I was surprised by the choice made here. That said, it can be gratifying to be introduced to something unfamiliar and the Spiritual We shall walk through the valley – an arrangement by the ‘Dean of Black Women Composers’ Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) – provided one such opportunity.
However, it is the more expansive works with organ accompaniment that leave a lasting impression, and of these, Stanford’s glorious Trinity-tide anthem I saw the Lord is especially rewarding. The choir gives a stirring performance, with the boys and men in lustrous voice, and its narrative is well-paced. In addition, the composer’s theatrical instincts are fully realised, its climax (‘and the house was filled with smoke’) a high point of the disc. Of the four mellifluous soloists, the treble Owen Hurrell clearly has a promising future. Among the other substantial works, Dove’s Vast ocean of light (Epiphany) brings issues with diction, a problem that blunts the grandeur and mystery inherent to Phineas Fletcher’s text. Yet there’s no denying the eager response to this superb work, the singers clearly making the most of its soaring lines and uplifting climaxes. It’s an enthusiasm heard too in Todd’s The Call of Wisdom (All Saints’) where its emotional charge is splendidly outlined. Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful (Good Friday) generates accumulating interest from its asymmetric phrase patterns through to its emphatic central climax and gentle duetting.
Elsewhere, two organ pieces demonstrate the Cathedral’s magnificent Nicholson instrument; colourful reeds showcased in Gaston Litaize’s Epiphanie, its evocation of the journey of the Magi given an ecstatic outing by Aaron Shilson. Then there’s Kenneth Leighton’s more meditative but richly harmonised setting of the plainsong melody Veni Creator Spiritus given an involving account by Stephen Moore.
In summary, this generously filled disc shows ample proof of a flourishing choral foundation, building on past achievements with aplomb. Furthermore, it demonstrates high standards attainable under inspirational leadership.
A Year at Llandaff, Stephen Moore (Director of Music), Aaron Shilson (organist) is available now, details below.
Arr. John Scott – Creator of the Stars of Night, Bob Chilcott – Nova! Nova!, Gustav Holst – In the bleak midwinter (arr. M Wilberg), Gaston Litaize – Epiphanie, Trad, arr Philip Lawson – Down to the River to Pray, Jonathan Dove – Vast ocean of light, Spiritual arr Undine Smith Moore – We shall walk through the valley, Philip Wilby – Wondrous Cross, Edward Elgar – Ave Maria, Simon Lole – The Father’s Love, Philip Moore – It is a thing most wonderful, Dutch carol, arr. Philp Ledger – This joyful Eastertide, Healey Willan – Rise up, my love, Kenneth Leighton – Veni creator spiritus, John Stainer – I saw the Lord, Chilcott – Even Such is Time, Will Todd – The Call of Wisdom, Caradog Roberts – Arglwydd mae yn nosi