James MacMillan’s brief unaccompanied Mass for Durham Cathedral is here surrounded by a motley selection of carols, motets, anthems and organ music. As a programme it lacks coherence but there is enough to please some of the people some of the time. And while there are many and finer recordings of Panis angelicus around, Bryan Kelly’s innocuous Summer in winter was written for this choir and brings a nice touch of individuality.
My personal favourite here is a dramatically poised account of Stanford’s masterly For lo, I raise up, which shows off the choir and organ magnificently. I do wonder at the eccentric booklet-note which devotes just 41 words to this anthem, 19 of which refer to a ‘double entendre’ which, for the life of me, I cannot identify in the text itself.
The Durham girl choristers produce a raw, brittle sound, and while it is wise of James Lancelot not to try to get them to emulate the smoothly blended sound of a traditional boys’ choir, he might have tried to smooth a few of the rougher edges before committing them to the harsh light of a CD. Nevertheless, this is the kind of sound which ideally suits MacMillan’s 2010 Missa Dunelmi with its combination of sharply focused lines and cloudy harmonic clusters. Some of the upper passagework lacks precision and the balance is distinctly top heavy, but overall this is a committed and effective account of a highly original piece of church music.
Francesca Massey proves to be a hugely gifted accompanist, using the Durham organ’s vast resources with intelligence and restraint, and letting rip in a fervent account of the Te Deum by Jeanne Demessieux.