> William Walton - Choral Works [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Choral Works

Coronation Te Deum (arr. Simon Preston & Mark Blatchly)*
A Litany: Drop, drop slow tears
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis*
Where does the uttered music go?
Jubilate Deo*
Henry V; ĎTouch her soft lips and partí (arr. Iain Farrington)*
Cantico del Sole
Henry V: Passacaglia "Death of Falstaff" (arr. Farrington)*
The Twelve*
Set me as a seal upon thine heart
Antiphon*
Missa Brevis*
Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge directed by Christopher Robinson
*Christopher Whitton (organ)
Recorded in the chapel of St. Johnís College, Cambridge 10-12 July 2001
NAXOS 8.555793 [66.09]

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 programme.

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 Whitton.

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 will continue.

Recommended enthusiastically.

John Quinn


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