The ongoing Naxos series of English choral music by
the St Johnís choir has already included excellent recitals of music
by Britten, Howells and John Tavener. In 2001 they produced a wonderful
disc to mark the centenary of Edmund Rubbra and now they turn their
attention to another centenarian, Sir William Walton.
Although Waltonís sacred choral music formed a fairly
small part of his catalogue of works, the music which he did write in
this genre is of high quality. Furthermore, the music was produced throughout
almost his entire creative span. The little gem, Drop, drop slow
tears was composed when he was just 15 years old while Antiphon
(a setting of George Herbertís poem which begins: ĎLet all the world
in every corner singí) was composed near the end of his life, in 1977.
As the concise but excellent notes remind us, Waltonís
roots lay in Anglican church music. His father was a church choirmaster
in Oldham and William graduated from his fatherís choir to membership
of the choir at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. There, recognition
of his precocious musical talent led to the college admitting him as
an undergraduate at the age of just sixteen.
In fact there is a disc of Waltonís choral music by
the present day choir of Christ Church under Stephen Darlington. This
disc, which contains several of the items on the Naxos disc, was made
for Nimbus in 1992. It is currently available as part of a bargain priced
5-disc box of twentieth century English choral music. The Oxford choir
sings well but I prefer their Cambridge rivals. The St Johnís sound
strikes me as being crisper and better blended. Furthermore, the Naxos
recorded sound is much preferable, I think, and the disc offers a longer
I must say that I was a shade apprehensive that the
Coronation Te Deum, which opens the St Johnís recital, might sound a
bit feeble shorn of the panoply of full chorus, organ and orchestra
for which it was originally scored. I need not have worried. The arrangement
by Simon Preston, with organ reduction by Mark Blatchly, works very
well indeed and the organ part, resplendently recorded by Naxos, is
played superbly. The choirís singing is splendidly incisive; every word
is clear (as is the case throughout the programme); the engineers have
achieved an excellent balance between singers and organ; and finally,
Christopher Robinson ensures that his choir observes all the dynamics
Ė there is some most sensitive quiet singing while the loudest passages
resound thrillingly without any suggestion of forced tone. Really, this
performance sets the standard which is maintained throughout the disc.
There is some sensible programme planning in evidence
for two of the Ďbigí pieces, the Te Deum and the mini-cantata, The
Twelve, are both followed by pieces which are on a much more
intimate scale. These are, respectively, Drop, drop slow tears,
and Set me as a seal upon thine heart. In both cases the
choir sing with great refinement and the contrast with the preceding
piece is telling and effective.
I have to admit that I donít find Waltonís setting
of Where does the uttered music go? desperately interesting,
splendidly though it is sung here. I think part of the trouble is caused
by the rather verbose and ponderous text (by John Masefield) with which
Walton was saddled. Had he been commissioned to set words which were
more directly expressive I wonder if the result would have been better?
Certainly, the setting of the Jubilate Deo, which follows, suggests
this might be the case for here we have a robust, vivid and communicative
piece, which, unlike the Masefield setting, actually sounds enjoyable
to sing. The choir sings it buoyantly. What a splendid Ďwake upí call
it is for a Matins congregation!
As will be clear by now, I hope, the standard of both
music and performance on this CD is very high indeed. There are two
non-vocal items, organ arrangements of excerpts from Waltonís incidental
music for the film of Henry V. These actually work much better
than I expected and provide nice breaks in the vocal programme. Both
are atmospherically played by one of the Collegeís organ scholars, Christopher
Like its predecessors this CD shows what a magnificent
job Christopher Robinson has done at St. Johnís since succeeding his
distinguished predecessor, Dr. George Guest, in 1991. In Guestís time
one sometimes felt that St Johnís was unfairly overshadowed by its nearby
rivals at Kingís College. On current evidence St Johnís need fear no
comparisons with Kingís. Christopher Robinson has honed his choir into
a most flexible and responsive ensemble. Diction is outstandingly good,
and I much admire their control of pitch and dynamics. In short, attention
to detail is scrupulous but it never gets in the way of the flow and
shape of the music.
Of course, there are other similar anthologies available,
the contents of all of which overlap (though not completely) with the
Naxos programme. I have already referred to the Nimbus CD. There was
also a Conifer recital by the excellent choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
under Richard Marlow but this may no longer be available. The chief
competition comes from a splendid recital by the Finzi Singers on Chandos.
However, I would regard this as a complementary disc for it is by a
mixed adult choir whereas, of course, the St Johnís choir includes boy
trebles. In any case, this Naxos collection can stand comparison with
the Finzi Singers or, indeed, with any other rival and as it is so reasonably
priced anyone who already has any of the alternatives which I have mentioned
could certainly invest in this new disc as well.
To sum up, this CD contains some very fine music in
absolutely top class performances which are accorded recorded sound
of comparable excellence. The exemplary notes are a model of their kind:
concise, informative and well written. Full texts are also provided.
This issue is yet another feather in the Naxos cap and is a most distinguished
centenary tribute. I just hope that this excellent series of recordings