Westminster Abbey Choir/ O'Donnell, Westminster Abbey, London

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The Independent Culture

An expectant silence: then out of the resonant distance came the unmistakable, priestly tenor intonations of Leigh Nixon, a veteran of so many of our best early music consorts, leading his 35 fellow members of the Westminster Cathedral Choir through the sinuous iterations of the coronation plainchant "Laudes Regiae" as they processed to their places before the rood screen. Whereupon, under the vital direction of their Director James O'Donnell, they burst into the feisty syncopations of the 15th-century Agincourt Carol, before pausing to hear the Abbey's sub-organist Andrew Reid unfold the cool contrapuntal curlicues of a chamber organ Fancy of William Byrd.

The ensuing chronological panoply of English church music certainly demonstrated what a versatile, powerful and, indeed, virtuoso body the Abbey Choir has recently become under O'Donnell's coaching, even if certain major composers were unavoidably missing - notably Purcell, dealt with elsewhere in the South Bank's current WorldVoice series, of which this was part. Their delivery of Byrd's "Sing joyfully", which its choral "orchestration" of trumpet fanfares, was as brilliant as Peter Phillips's "O quam suavis est" sounded sumptuously sustained. And the dark progressions of "O Lord in thy Wrath" by that most perfect of Jacobean masters, Orlando Gibbons, came over as intensely as his famous O clap your hands together dazzled in its dancing intricacy.

At which point, the florid organ Voluntary in D minor, Op 5 no 8, in Baroque concerto form by Handel's contemporary, the blind London organist John Stanley, conveyed us rapidly through the 18th- to a 19th-century group, opening with a serenely opulent pre-echo of the late-Victorian manner of Parry and Elgar, in "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace" by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Elgar himself was represented by the chromatically inflected "Light out of Darkness" from his early oratorio "The Light of Life", and Parry by his magnificent coronation anthem I was glad - conveying older listeners back to the moment, 50 years ago, when the young Queen entered Westminster Abbey.

The second half was all 20th century, opening with one of the most fearsome blasts Vaughan Williams ever penned in his late, rarely heard chorus-and- organ rampage A Vision of Aeroplances, which setting a weird passage from Ezekial. Terror was briefly mollified by Howells's pastiche Elizabethan organ piece Master Tallis' Testament, and then at greater length by Finzi's alternately grave and glowing Crashaw setting Lo, the full, final sacrifice. Then Holst's increasingly radiant setting of the "Nunc dimittis", dating from the same period as his Hymn of Jesus, rounded off this deeply rewarding concert.

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