An English Coronation 1902-1953 (Gabrieli Consort)
On his tireless voyage of ceremonial and liturgical reconstruction, Paul McCreesh’s 20th-century coronation anthology is arguably his most ambitious and intricate to date. If the various Mass, coronation and Vespers projects from the Gabrielis over the past 30 years have displayed the full gamut of prevailing instrumental and vocal genres from a single occasion (for instance, Doge Grimani’s investiture in 1595), the best music from four recent English coronations – 1902, 1911, 1937 and 1953 – is selected here in a procession from the assemblage of protagonists to the recession into the streets. In between, we witness oaths, anointing and communion, adorned by an exhilaratingly varied diet of professional and amateur choral and instrumental groups.
On a conceptual level, McCreesh is not so much reconstructing as celebrating the unique cultural ritual of pageantry described by the historian Roy Strong as a ‘marriage of tradition and innovation’. And how comfortably the golden-age greats of Tallis, Byrd and Gibbons reside here in the bosom of their respectful modern-day counterparts who provided the commissions: Wood, Elgar, Howells, Walton and a splendid new recessional by David Matthews. As each coronation is meticulously documented, decisions are built on firm historical foundations without the black holes of earlier Renaissance and Baroque forays which require a necessarily speculative imagination.
Well-articulated insights into the rich theatrical dimension of this quartet of coronations work best in the large works, all of which sound spectacular in the ringing acoustic, and whose atmosphere is enhanced by ambient and anticipatory shuffle of a large congregation between each number. Taken on their own terms, the smaller works generally seem less well defined and distinctive (Gibbons’s O clap your hands is a case in point). There’s a suspicion that primary attention to the vast canvas inhibits specific nuancing of individual musical works. I missed an affectionate conceit in Wesley’s Thou wilt keep him and Zadok the Priest sounds more driven than majestic, and rather too sleekly Georgian.
Some may find the extensive spoken liturgy excessive but such is Simon Russell Beale’s compelling delivery that the sheer beauty of the words offers a musical diversion of a different kind. Most impressive, perhaps, is how extremes of unalloyed opulence sit so movingly alongside intimate supplication, notably in the lonely solemnity of a monarch facing God. A particularly stately Parry I was glad contrasts powerfully with the deliberate interiority of Purcell’s Hear my prayer.
Clear reference points in the choice of interpretative style also impart a striking coherence to the project. No attempt is made to engage with the kinds of singing heard in early music of the day – which could be considered a pointless piece of archaeology. Not unlike Robert King’s excellent disc of Stanford and Parry on ‘period’ instruments (Vivat, 3/13), early-century performance practice illuminates almost all the ‘commissioned’ pieces: the orchestral works, from Elgar’s Coronation March to Walton’s Crown Imperial, are infectiously lean, transparent and restrained, with the kind of decisive parade-ground ‘clip’ redolent of British Pathé voices. These are the jewels in the crown. One can imagine the virtuosity required by every contributor, at every turn, to make this a reality, let alone a dazzling triumph. The documentation is comprehensive and satisfying.