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English Choral Music
Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge/Christopher Robinson

Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G Op 81 (soloist: Oliver Lepage-Dean); Justorum Animae
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Ave Verum Corpus Op 2 no 1; Give unto the Lord Op 74;
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Call (soloist: Oliver Lepage-Dean)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis ‘St. Paul’s’; Paean for Organ (soloist: Iain Farrington); Take him earth for cherishing.
Peter HURFORD (b.1930) Litany of the Holy Spirit
Gerald FINZI (1901-1986) Welcome sweet and sacred feast Op 27 no 3; God is gone up Op 27 no 2;
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) Magnificat in A flat; Tenebrae Motets –Third Nocturne Op 72
Rec. Stanford recorded July 2002; Elgar, July 2003; Vaughan Williams and Hurford, February 2002; Howells March 1999; Rubbra, March 2000; Finzi, March 2001
William WALTON (1902-1982) Set me as a seal; Coronation Te Deum; Gloria from Missa Brevis;
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Jubilate Deo; Hymn to St. Cecilia; Hymn to the Virgin; Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Crux Fidelis Op 43 no. 2; Look up Sweet babe Op 43 no 2; The Lord is my Shepherd Op 91 no 1;
Kenneth LEIGHTON ((1929-1988) Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - Collegium Magdalen Oxonienses; An Easter Sequence.
John TAVENER (b.1944) The Lamb; The Lord’s Prayer; Song for Athene
Recorded in the Chapel of St. John’s College Cambridge
Rec. Walton, recorded July 2001; Britten, July 1999; Berkeley, March 2003; Leighton, July 2002; Tavener, July 2000.
All recorded in the Chapel of St. John’s College Cambridge. DDD
NAXOS 8.557557-8 [72.22 + 77.29]


Another Naxos compilation and a very welcome one for several reasons. Firstly, it features a top male choir consistently on peak form. Secondly, it allows us an opportunity to investigate ‘the best of the choir’s CDs of the last few years. These have been of the English choral tradition as exemplified by Stanford and Howells - the staple diet of any cathedral choir. This double album will give an ideal guide to 20th Century English Cathedral Music.

And what a glorious tradition this is and very precious too. This is Cambridge after all, the home of so much English choral music of the early 20th Century. Each of these composers brought something individual and special to the tradition having in some cases been also associated more with the concert hall than with the cloister. Lennox Berkeley was a devout Catholic as was Edmund Rubbra. Both wrote symphonies and concertos but their choral music was vital for them. Some of it at least is still in the repertoire. In fact when I was choirboy we rarely sang either but now, as I look through the Times Sunday Cathedral music columns, both feature regularly.

Kenneth Leighton and Peter Hurford are performed far more in church than in the concert hall although Leighton wrote three symphonies and a fine cello concerto as well as other works.

Gerald Finzi’s contributions are outstanding and receive especially superb performances. Perhaps if I had to pick two works which succeed less well and need more characterization I might go for Walton’s Coronation Te Deum which seems to be more prosaic and formulaic than I had remembered. Also Howells’ ‘Take him earth for cherishing’ needs to be more than just beautiful. Also I must add Leighton’s Easter Sequence’ which, to my ears, also sounds predictable with the requisite syncopated rhythms representing Resurrection and Ascension.

Against that I should add that the choir under Robinson’s clearly focused direction makes other pieces sound as you have never heard them. One takes Britten’s Jubilate almost for granted, but this is a sparkling and very enjoyable performance which brought it back to life. The Hymn to St. Cecilia is often done by mixed choirs so it is a refreshing change, and a special one, to hear the boy trebles ringing out ‘I only play, I only play’.

There are some surprises. Look at the original discs. For example on Rubbra disc I would possibly have chosen a movement from the Saint Dominic Mass and not the Tenebrae Nocturne. However the latter is much less well known and so is a good choice.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find Finzi’s ‘Welcome sweet and Scared Feast’ from that all-Finzi disc.

A special recommendation should go to the boy treble, Oliver Lepage Dean who is so clear and yet strong - a beautiful voice. It almost seems as if VW had written ‘The Call’ especially for him.

Christopher Robinson’s tenure at St. Johns ended in 2003 having taken over from the late, great George Guest. It was the latter who developed the distinctive St. John’s sound and although Robinson smoothed it out a little it remains a unique contribution to the recorded legacy of this repertoire.

At Naxos’s bargain price these performances should be snapped up and relished. Better still, get yourself to Cambridge during Advent or Easter and hear the choir for yourself.

There are excellent notes on each composer and each work in the twenty-four page booklet extracted from the original CDs. All texts are provided.

Gary Higginson

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