The Naxos/St. John’s
series of recordings of English church
music continues with a tribute to Kenneth
Leighton. This must be the ninth or
tenth volume in the series. I’ve collected
the whole set and can report that this
latest installment maintains the high
standards of its predecessors.
Born in Wakefield,
Kenneth Leighton was a chorister at
that city’s Anglican cathedral, an experience
that coloured much of his future musical
life and which found expression especially
in his music for the English church,
a representative selection of which
is included here. Leighton subsequently
studied at Oxford, where his teachers
included Bernard Rose and much of his
later career was devoted to academic
appointments at the universities of
Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford. There is
nothing academic about his music, however.
That speaks to the listener directly,
colourfully and eloquently.
A pair of "Mag
and Nuncs" bookend this recital.
The earlier setting is dedicated to
Leighton’s former teacher, Bernard Rose.
The Magnificat is distinguished by some
vigorous choral writing and a demanding
organ part. It culminates in an ebullient
‘Gloria’. By contrast, there’s a gentle
ecstasy at the opening of the Nunc Dimittis
but the setting expands to an affirmative
conclusion with a splendidly sonorous
organ part. By and large, the canticles
of the Second Service are less forthright
in character. The Magnificat gradually
gathers momentum and intensity before
subsiding into a tranquil ‘Gloria’.
The hues of the Nunc Dimittis are somewhat
dark. Both sets of canticles are probably
among the standard fare at St John’s
and are sung with conviction and assurance.
As has been the case
with several previous volumes in this
series, the choral items are broken
up by the inclusion of a couple of organ
solos. The choices here are particularly
felicitous. Veni Creator Spiritus
opens quietly, the plainchant theme
subtly underpinning the texture. Gradually
the piece builds to an impressive, majestic
central climax before subsiding again
to the reflective mood in which the
piece stirred to life. In this fairly
brief piece Leighton exploits the range
and sonority of the instrument effectively.
Rockingham is a subdued meditation.
It’s a little oasis of calm refreshment.
Both pieces are well played by Christopher
Whitton, one of the college’s Organ
Scholars at the time of this recording.
The two larger works
complement each other well in terms
of the subjects they address. An
Easter Sequence was commissioned
by an American boy’s choir for a service
in Paris. The chosen texts comprise
four Proper texts from the liturgies
of the first and second Sundays after
Easter, Psalm 23, and an antiphon from
the First Vespers of Ascension Day.
The scoring for boy’s voices conveys
wonderfully the pure, chaste joy of
Easter and the clean textures of the
music are enhanced and given extra point
by the inclusion of a silvery trumpet.
The choir sing excellently, displaying
excellent diction and rhythmic alertness.
The music is delightful and it is expertly
crafted (as is everything on the disc.)
Though I’m sure it’s not easy music
to perform the boys make it sound great
fun to sing. This work was new to me
and I’m very glad it was included.
Crucifixus pro nobis
is a tougher proposition, as befits
its subject. The four movements set
texts by two seventeenth-century English
metaphysical poets, Patrick Carey (d.
1651), and Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650).
The poems, which deal with aspects of
Christ’s passion, are rich in imagery,
to which Leighton responds imaginatively.
The work concludes with a fine setting
of Fletcher’s celebrated text, ‘Drop,
drop, slow tears’. The music is the
most challenging on the disc, being
cast in darker hues and distinguished
by comparatively astringent harmonies.
James Oxley is an eloquent soloist in
the first piece, ‘Christ in the Cradle’
and later sings with suitable drama
in ‘Christ in his Passion’ The chorus
sing their music powerfully. In the
concluding ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’
they realise well the gentle luminosity
of Leighton’s music, which conveys admirably
the bitter sweetness of the Crucifixion.
This is another fine
achievement by Christopher Robinson
and his St. John’s forces. In general
the choral blend is good, though there
were times when I thought the tenor
line was a little too prominent. The
singing is committed, responsive and
incisive and diction is very good. Some
of Leighton’s organ accompaniments are
powerful but I thought that the engineers
generally integrated the choir with
the organ very successfully. On my equipment
and through headphones the sound is
satisfying and full. The notes by Andrew
Burn are very good and full English
texts are provided.
retired from St. John’s twelve months
after setting down this disc following
a very distinguished period of twelve
years as Organist and Director of Music
at the college Is this the last of his
recordings that Naxos has "in the
can"? I’d like to think there might
be more (a Parry disc, perhaps?) If
not, this is an excellent final installment
in a fine and enjoyable series. I strongly
recommend this CD to all those who love
the music of the English church.