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Songs of Heaven and Earth
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Heart’s Music (1954) [3’03"]
Valiant-for-Truth (1940) [6’08"]
Three Choral Hymns (1930)** [14’02"]
Brian BROCKLESS (1926-1955)

Christ is now risen agayne (1958) [2’23"]
Now blessed be thou, Christ Jesu (1959) [2’32"]
Come Holy Spirite, Most Blessed Lorde (1976, revised 1985) [2’09"]
There is a garden in her face (1953) [3’17"]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Festival Te Deum (1944)** [6’24"]
Five Flower Songs (1950) [11’24"]
Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939)

Come, Holy Ghost (1984) [6’17"]
I love the Lord (1976) [5’42"]
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947)

Two Poems of Edward Thomas (1996)* [2’51"]
The Choir of Queen’s College, Cambridge
directed by Matthew Steynor and *James Weeks
**Samuel Hayes (organ)
Rec. Chapel of Queen’s College, Cambridge 24, 26, 27 June 2001; * 27 June 2000
GUILD GMCD 7265 [67’50"]

The choir of Queen’s College, Cambridge comprises (on this recording) six sopranos, four female altos, three tenors and four basses. For the two Harvey items three extra singers, one each of alto, tenor and bass were added. This is not a full time choir in the sense that they sing evensong daily: they sing services twice weekly in addition to other concert and touring commitments. No doubt because the choir is not full-time the college has no Director of Music. Instead there are two organ scholars and the senior of the two directs the choir during his (or her) final academic year. On the evidence of this CD I’d suggest that this arrangement has consequences. The choir has plenty of good musical qualities but I felt there was evidence of the lack of an experienced guiding hand to apply the final layer of polish in matters of balance and blend. Interestingly, I felt that there was a better blend and a fuller tone in the two items by Howard Skempton which were directed by James Weeks, Matthew Steynor’s predecessor as Senior Organ Scholar.

The other handicap is that often the choir seems to lack weight of tone, especially at the extremes: there is a tendency to shrillness when the soprano line is under pressure and the bass line is appreciably light in tone, for my taste at least.

The chosen programme is interesting and varied, combining sacred and secular pieces. The latter focus on the beauty of creation in nature while several of the former were mainly written for specific, special occasions and are consequently celebratory in tone.

The first two Vaughan Williams items are well done. The chaste beauty of Heart’s Music (track 1) is well handled and the singers cope well with Valiant-for-Truth (track 2) which is demanding, not least in terms of sustaining impetus and tension, although I feel that the final climax, where the trumpets sound for Pilgrim, needs more weight of tone, especially in the bass, than this choir possesses. This lack of tonal weight is the main reason why I think the performances of the Three Choral Hymns is rather less successful: for instance in the Easter Hymn (track 12) the sopranos sound somewhat edgy while the bass line is too light.

The music of Brian Brockless is new to me. According to the notes he was a "highly respected figure of the London church music circle" and he was especially associated with the church of St Bartholomew the Great. He wrote secular music too and this part of his output is represented by There is a garden in her face, a setting of words by Thomas Campion which was inspired by the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The pieces recorded here don’t seem to me to break much new ground – they are strophic and unashamedly tonal – and though enjoyable to hear I felt a really individual voice was lacking.

This is emphasised by the juxtaposition of Brockless’s music with that of Britten. The Te Deum, which took him a mere two days to write, has the distinctive voice which, for me, is missing from Brockless’s music. For the most part it is performed effectively here though the loud chords at the words "O Lord, in Thee have I trusted" (track 6, 5’34") are dominated by sopranos and tenors; another instance, I’m afraid, where balance and blend are less than ideal and where the immaturity of some of the voices is apparent. To counterbalance this reservation, however, there is a really lovely, poised soprano solo sung by Kadia Acres. In the Five Flower Songs I particularly enjoyed the sensitive account of ‘The Evening Primrose’ (track 10).

The dense, complex choral textures of the two very demanding pieces by Jonathan Harvey are well realised and there is some accomplished solo work. To my mind these pieces work best when sung by an all-male choir where there is the added cutting edge of treble and male alto voices. However, the Queen’s College singers make a very good job of both works; indeed, these are probably the most successful performances in the whole programme, especially I love the Lord (track 17), which is quite outstanding.

In general the recorded sound is good although I did wonder if the chapel acoustic was a bit too reverberant for the Britten Flower Songs. For the most part the notes are good although there is one glaring error. In connection with Valiant-for-Truth we are told that Vaughan Williams "embarked on a setting of the entire Pilgrim’s Progress in the 1940s" which was "abandoned." In fact, though I’m not sure RVW ever contemplated a setting of Bunyan’s complete work, he began setting parts of it to music in the 1920s. and the finished opera (or "Morality" as he named it) was first staged at Covent Garden in 1951. This error in the notes is all the more regrettable since it was at Cambridge itself that the University Music Society under Boris Ord revived the work, with much more success than at Covent Garden, in 1954. Full English texts and a specification of the organ are included in the documentation and the notes (only) are also provided in German.

In summary, this CD is something of a mixed blessing and I’m sorry that I can only give it a qualified recommendation. The programme is very interesting and it is good to see Oxbridge college choirs other than the "usual suspects" represented on CD. However, since the disc is a full priced release it has to be judged accordingly and the choral singing, though it has much to commend it, not least commitment, does display some shortcomings of which intending purchasers should be aware.

John Quinn

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