Wednesday 8 November 2023

The Monarch's Music: recorded as part of Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee celebrations and released to serendipitously celebrate the 2023 Coronation

The Monarch's Music: Walton, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Britten, Adrian Batten, Laurie Johnson,  Saint-Saens; the Band of the Household Cavalry, the Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, organist Luke Bond, conductors Major Paul Collis-Smith and James Vivian; crd
The Monarch's Music: Walton, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Britten, Adrian Batten, Laurie Johnson,  Saint-Saens; the Band of the Household Cavalry, the Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, organist Luke Bond, conductors Major Paul Collis-Smith and James Vivian; crd
Reviewed 1 November 2023

Recorded as part of Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee celebrations and released to serendipitously celebrate the 2023 Coronation, this disc combines two ensembles strongly linked to the monarchy in disc which brings a lovely sense of freshness to the repertoire

With 2023 seeing the first Coronation for generations, it is not surprising that choirs and record companies seek to capitalise in various ways, to celebrate, to explore and yes, to make a bit of extra money. From crd comes the enterprising The Monarch's Music, except that is was recorded amidst the Platinum Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. On the disc, the Band of the Household Cavalry joins forces with the Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor and organist Luke Bond, under conductors Major Paul Collis-Smith and James Vivian, for programme that moves between the tried and trusted Walton, Parry, and RVW to the more unexpected Elgar, Britten, Adrian Batten, Laurie Johnson and Saint-Saens.

The choir consists of 13 boys on the top line, along with 14 women and men on the lower lines, the alto line taken by a mix of women and men, whilst the band is a military band, mixing brass and woodwind, over 40 players in all. What makes the disc work is the extraordinary high level of musicianship displayed on the disc, along with a lovely sense of freshness. Partly that comes from the sheer clarity of the choral textures, but also the sophistication and musicianship of the band arrangements.

The Band of the Household Cavalry and Major Paul Collis-Smith at Wellington Barracks
The Band of the Household Cavalry and Major Paul Collis-Smith at Wellington Barracks

Things kick off which John Rutter's 2013 arrangement of the National Anthem, made for for the service of celebration to mark the refurbishment of the organ in the Temple Church in the City of London, arranged for trumpets, choir and organ. Arranging the National Anthem is a thankless task, but Rutter emerges with far more than credit. Then we move into proper Coronation territory with Parry's I was glad in a transcription for choir, organ and military band by Lt. Col Edward Sills, adapted by WO1 Daniel Shave (who plays trumpet on the disc). The orchestration is stirring but sympathetic, with plenty of organ, so that we have colour and movement but the choir is never overwhelmed. What engages here is the sheer quality of the singing, including a terrific top line from the trebles. 

Coronation-iana continues with Walton's Crown Imperial, in an arrangement by for military band by William Duthoit. Not too bombastic a performance, and with the players relishing the range of colours Duthoit's version brings to the piece. This is followed by RVW's version of Old Hundredth, first heard at the 1953 Coronation but rightly used regularly on large occasions. It is a terrific piece, blending ceremonial fanfare with RVW's sheer love of the hymnal.

We then move into less well-trodden territory, the Te Deum from Elgar's Te Deum and Benedictus Op. 34, written in 1897 for the Hereford Music Festival. Whilst Elgar did write the Imperial March for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in 1897, this work has no direct connection though it influenced Stanford's Te Deum for Edward VII's Coronation. No matter, it is a welcome inclusion on the disc, moving things into a less hackneyed area. The band gets a rest here, and it is performed with organ accompaniment with organist Luke Bond getting a good work out in the long and very Elgarian peroration before the choir's stirring, unison first entry. This is prime Elgar, and it receives a performance with the choir on form, giving us long, flexible vocal lines and good words. The same forces give Britten's lesser-known Hymn to St Columba in a vivid performance.

We return to Elgar for an arrangement for military band by Dan Godfrey junior of his Chanson de Nuit. A rather curious selection but one redeemed by finely sympathetic Elgarian playing by the band.

Adrian Batten (1591-1637) was a prolific but now relatively little-known composer of the Stuart period. Thanks to his work as a copyist, much of the repertoire of the period has come down to us, and on this disc the choir sings his best known piece, O Sing Joyfully, a piece with an engagingly rhythmic undertow that hints at music by his better-known contemporaries including Gibbon.

We return to Elgar for, inevitably, his Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39, March No. 4 in G Major, in a transcription for military band, one of a number of orchestrations of Regimental Marches commissioned by the War Office from Michael Retford, a former member of the Band of the Coldstream Guards (1879-1893). The music featured in both the recent Coronation and the two previous ones. Retford's orchestration sounds so obvious and natural that you forget that Elgar wrote it as an orchestral work.

Laurie Johnson (born 1927) is best known for his film and television music, including This Is Your Life, Animal Magic, The Avengers, and The Professionals. He trained at the Royal College of Music and spent four years serving in the Coldstream Guards. Here, we hear his fanfare Vivat Regina taken from a suite written originally to commemorate Queen Victoria's status as longest reigning UK monarch (a place subsequently taken by Queen Elizabeth II). Short and vivid, it is an engaging example of the tricky but stirring art of fanfare-making.

The disc ends with a curiosity. In their booklet notes, Emma and Tom Pauncefort have to indulge in some special pleading. We hear movement IIb. Maestoso - Più allegro - Molto allegro from Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 which was commissioned from the composer by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1886. The arrangement is by the American composer and conductor Earl Anderson Slocum (1902-1994). I will have to admit, I'm not quite sure about this. We miss the strong differentiation in timbre between the organ and the orchestral strings (the symphony is all about timbre, witness the composer's use of piano duet), and the more athletic writing has vigour but lacks the sheer suaveness that strings can bring to the music. That said, much fine musicianship is on offer.

I have to confess that this is one of those surprise discs that engaged me much more than I expect. The willingness to visit musical byways as well as the fine musicianship from all concerned make it a programme whose sheer freshness of approach is winning.

Trad. Arr. for Trumpets, Choir and Organ by John Rutter - The National Anthem
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Trans. for Military Band by Lt. Col Edward Sills, Adapted by WO1 Daniel Shave
Sir William Walton, Arr. for Military Band by William Duthoit - Crown Imperial
Trad. Arr. for Choir, Congregation, Orchestra and Organ by Ralph Vaughan Williams - All people that on earth do dwell, "The Old Hundredth"
Sir Edward Elgar - Te Deum and Benedictus, Op. 34: No.1, Te Deum laudamus
Benjamin Britten - A Hymn of St Columba
Sir Edward Elgar, Arr. for Military Band by Dan Godfrey Junior - Chanson de nuit, Op. 15: No. 1
Adrian Batten - O Sing Joyfully
Sir Edward Elgar, Trans. for Military Band by Michael Retford - Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39: March No. 4 in G Major
Laurie Johnson - Vivat Regina
Camille Saint-Saëns, Arr. for Military Band and Organ by Earl Anderson Slocum - Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, “Organ”: IIb. Maestoso - Più allegro - Molto allegro
The Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
The Band of The Household Cavalry
Luke Bond (organ)
Major Paul Collis-Smith and James Vivian (conductors)
Recorded at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 8 - 9 March 2022
crd 3545 1CD [57:16]

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