Recorded: 22-24 March 1994
The Lay Clerks of Canterbury Cathedral Choir
David Flood, Master of the Choristers
This ancient music, the beautiful chant and its fascinating monody bring to mind images of the cloistered activities of monks centuries ago: this disc, in particular, is performed by the descendants of those mediaeval monks in England.
The chants for the Mass, and the Office of Matins for St Thomas of Canterbury are taken from the Sarum rite - the liturgical format developed at Salisbury Cathedral, which became the, more-or-less, standard sung formula throughout the middle ages in England. St Thomas of Canterbury is, of course, England's most important home-grown Saint, and therefore has a special resonance to the place of Canterbury. The performers here are the Lay Clerks of Canterbury Cathedral - the professional men of the cathedral choir; since the reformation, when many Cathedrals lost their dual roles as monasteries, the musical tradition has been upheld by such Lay Clerks, who continue to sing daily in the Cathedrals, much as their predecessor monks did, if somewhat fewer times in the day. The recording location, the Trinity Chapel in the cathedral, is also full of historic resonance, being the site of St Thomas' shrine, also lost at the reformation, but still the spiritual and architectural culmination of Canterbury Cathedral.
All of these things add up to make this disc a document of some interest in this secular age. Here is the most tangible of musical links stretching back 1000 years, and taken in this way the disc becomes much more than just another 74 minutes of Gregorian chant. Listening to the chants in their context as part of complete services, be it the Mass with propers, or the Office of Matins, adds to the sense of continuity in the performances.
The way the chants are handled is always a touchy area, but maybe the reciting passages [many words on a single note] are a bit too stolid, with emphasis given evenly to each successive syllable, and that this format is rather old-fashioned. The other problem that this disc has is the quality of the recorded sound. The choice of the Trinity Chapel is evocative certainly, but it is not so good acoustically, and there is little reason to believe that these chants would ever have been sung in the chapel. The Quire of the cathedral is the natural place for this repertoire and it would possibly have been a wiser recording venue. In the small space of the Trinity Chapel the microphone placings are, of necessity, close and this destroys the feel of the vast spaciousness of the cathedral that sets off Gregorian Chant so well. Additionally, it allows a lot of breathing noise between the phrases to be audible, and results in the blend of the singers being reduced. Overall there is a considerable amount of 'dead noise' in the recordings.
These aspects are unfortunate as, those small reservations mentioned above notwithstanding, the quality of the singing is good. A more ambient acoustic would certainly have done no harm.
A fascinating disc well worth having, if only for very late at night.