Lumen Christi: a Sequence of Music for the Easter Vigil
Dan Divers

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Peter Stevens (Organ) | Simon Johnson (Director)
CD £15 | Digital download £10.99 at 

This anthology, which is the first commercial recording the choir has made since Simon Johnson became Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in September 2021, continues a practice inaugurated by his predecessor, Martin Baker, of recording sequences of music proper to certain seasons of the liturgical calendar. The previous two albums, Miserere and Vexilla Regis, covered Lent and the first part of Holy Week; this latest offering is devoted to the Easter Vigil, the climax of the whole liturgical year.

Even before hearing a note, one cannot help but be impressed by the quality of the production. The CD is housed is a hardback booklet of 65 pages printed on high quality paper, which contains not only texts and translations in Latin and English, but is lavishly illustrated by photographs of the Vigil at the Cathedral and of the choir during recording sessions at Buckfast Abbey. It has exemplary notes about the Easter Vigil and the music recorded, by Peter Stevens (Assistant Master of Music) and Jeremy Summerly respectively, so that even a listener whose knowledge of the content of the Easter Vigil is sketchy will be able to follow what is going on with ease.

As would be expected, there is no shortage of plainsong, sung in both Latin and English, as well as settings by Lassus, Victoria, Palestrina (2), Monteverdi, L’Héritier and, nearer our own time, Andrew Reid and Matthew Martin, both of whom have served as Assistant Master of Music at the Cathedral. Throughout the singing of the choir is excellent: vibrant and committed, expansively phrased and exciting, yet not lacking in refinement too.

Following the Lucernarium (Service of Light) and the lighting of the Paschal Candle the Exultet is sung in English by one of the tenors (unfortunately not named) in a manner which it would be difficult to surpass. It could well be used as a model by any priest or deacon who is assigned the daunting task of singing the Easter Proclamation.

Next comes the Liturgy of the Word, in which there are four tracks of music to follow the selected scripture readings, including Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, a Westminster speciality, and Victoria’s Laudate Dominum for double choir, oddly but effectively in a minor key, despite the jubilant text. The solemn Alleluias which follow the Gloria by Monteverdi are most effectively done, their threefold rising in pitch a symbol of the resurrection.

The Liturgy of Baptism, the penultimate section of the Vigil, contains only two musical items: the chanting of the Litany of Saints, which probably does not lend itself to repeated listening, and Matthew Martin’s Vidi Aquam, which most certainly does. It is the most recent composition on the CD and it is good to see that the choir is promoting new music as well as being loyal to their more traditional roots.

The final section, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, contains a setting by the sixteenth century Frenchman of Surrexit Pastor Bonus, a rapt rather than exuberant meditation on the momentous event which it describes. It is one of the highlights of the disc. Next come the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Mass I (Fons et Origo), which is specific to Eastertide. Peter Stevens in his notes describes the effect of hearing it at the Easter Vigil as being like hearing the first carol at Christmas. Palestrina’s extended Angelus Domini Descendit is the communion motet, after which we are treated to a plethora of Alleluias which punctuate the plainsong psalm Confitemini Domino.

For good measure, there are even more Alleluias in Martin Baker’s exuberant setting of O Filii et Filiae (in English, despite its title) which brings the choir’s contribution to a resounding conclusion. Peter Stevens, who till this point has had a fairly easy assignment, plays the virtuoso organ accompaniment with panache and obvious enjoyment. As an envoi he gives us Incantation pour un Jour Saint by Jean Langlais, which features prominently the Lumen Christi chant heard at the start of the liturgy. It brings this splendid programme full circle and puts the Ruffatti organ, one of the glories of Buckfast Abbey, triumphantly through its paces.

It is very heartening to hear that the choir is on such good form and continues to be a beacon of light and a source of inspiration for lovers of good music in the liturgy. There are rumours of a follow-up disc of music for Ascensiontide and Pentecost. Bring it on!

Dan Divers is Director of Music at St Aloysius Church, Glasgow.

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