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English Choral Music
Choir of St.John’s College Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Recorded in the chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge on: 13 - 16 March, 1999 (Howells); 13 - 15 July, 1999 (Britten); 24 – 26 March, 2000 (Rubbra); 11 – 13 July, 2000 (Tavener); 17 – 19 March, 2001 (Finzi); 10 – 12 July, 2001 (Walton); 9 – 11 July, 2002 (Leighton); 12-13 July, 2002 (Stanford); 20 – 22 March, 2003 (Berkeley); 8 – 10 July, 2003 (Elgar); * February 2002. DDD.
NAXOS 8.557557-58 [2:29:51]



CD1
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)

Magnificat in G op.81
Nunc Dimittis in G op. 81

Soloist: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble
Justorum Animae

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Ave Verum Corpus, op.2 no.1
Give unto the Lord (Psalm 29), op.74

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

The Call

Soloist: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Magnificat, St. Paul’s
Nunc Dimittis, St. Paul’s
Paean for Organ

Organist: Iain Farrington
Take him, earth, for cherishing

Peter HURFORD (b.1930)

Litany to the Holy Spirit

Soloist: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Welcome Sweet and Sacred Feast, op.27 no.3

Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)

Tenebrae Motets – Third Nocturn, op.72
Magnificat in Ab

Gerald FINZI

God is gone up, op.27 no.2

CD2
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)

Set me as a seal upon thine heart

Soloists: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble, Edward Lyon, tenor
Coronation Te Deum (arr. Simon Preston and Mark Blatchley)
Gloria from Missa Brevis

Soloists: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble, Geoffrey Silver, tenor
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

A Hymn to the Virgin

Soloists: William Goldring, treble, Christopher de la Hoyde, alto, Simon Wall, tenor, Reuben Thomas, bass
Jubilate Deo
Hymn to St. Cecilia, op.27

Soloists: Benedict Giles, Ben Harrison, trebles, Richard Moore, alto, Jonathan Bungard, tenor, Reuben Thomas, bass
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)

The Lord is my Shepherd, op.91 no.1

Soloist: Benjamin Durrant, treble
Crux Fidelis, op.43 no1

Soloist: Allan Clayton, tenor
Look up, Sweet Babe, op.43 no.2

Soloist: James Geidt, treble
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from Collegium Magdalene Oxonienses
An Easter Sequence – Sortie

Soloist: Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpet
Sir John TAVENER (b.1944)
The Lamb
The Lord’s Prayer
Song for Athene

 

 

The somewhat unhelpful title of these discs –‘English Choral Music’ could after all mean almost anything – gives little indication of the riches that lie within. What we have here is a valuable ‘rough guide’ to English religious (mostly Anglican) choral music of the past century or so, ranging from Stanford through to Tavener. (I say ‘religious’, though there are several exceptions, notably Britten’s ‘Ode to St. Cecilia’ and Howells’ ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’.)

Looked at another way, the set is a compilation from the fine series of CDs Christopher Robinson and the St. John’s Choir have made for Naxos over the last few years. Robinson has now retired as their conductor, but the CDs act as a fine memorial to his time at St. John’s.

As most of the CDs were devoted to individual composers, it is natural to find the numbers here by and large grouped in the same way. Thus we start with Stanford, the lovely Magnificat in G, the solo part sung by a quite exceptional treble, Oliver Lepage-Dean. He appears on quite a number of tracks on the first CD, and displays a maturity of musicianship together with a purity of tone which make him a pure joy to listen to.

Elgar is represented by two pieces; the very early Ave Verum has a fine, suave melody, to which the boys of St. John’s respond with their richest tone. Robinson’s voice training is very clearly in evidence here. The much later Give unto the Lord is a powerful, assertive anthem that was new to me – its sweeping choral writing is worthy of the composer of Gerontius.

Vaughan Williams’ tranquil The Call, another solo item for Oliver Lepage-Dean, is followed by a sequence of music by Herbert Howells, concluding with his anthem in memory of JFK – Take him, earth, for cherishing. Though probably more suited to a mixed choir, this nevertheless works very well, for Robinson lets it flow, which is not only sympathetic to the boys’ breathing limitations but compensates for the very sectional nature of the piece.

Howells’ Paean for organ draws some fine playing from Iain Farrington, alerting me to the fact that organists don’t appear to be credited at all, a strange state of affairs, of which I’m sure Christopher Robinson would not approve, being himself a very fine proponent. The instrument itself, though sometimes a little too far back in audio terms, performs admirably; whoever played it in, for example, the concluding item of CD1, Finzi’s joyous God is gone up, coaxed some splendidly brassy noises out of it.

CD2 starts with Walton – the melting Set me as a seal performed with great sensitivity. The Coronation Te Deum, in an arrangement for smaller forces, is nothing like so satisfactory. The men of the choir, in particular, go ‘over the top’ rather in their attempt to emulate the power of a larger ensemble. This is a fairly rare lapse, but does tend to characterise some of the more extrovert numbers.

Britten and Berkeley suit Robinson and this choir down to the ground, for they are completely at home in the subtle blend of sensuality and purity that the music demands. This version of Britten’s great Hymn to St. Cecilia doesn’t really compare with the best mixed choir versions in my view. Yet here, it seems in place, and the freshness of the boys’ voices does provide a unique poignancy to phrases such as ‘O dear white children casual as birds’. Another highly accomplished treble, Benjamin Durrant, adds distinction to Berkeley’s exquisite setting of Psalm 23 – in fact most of the solos are taken with great aplomb and confidence (though I personally found the strangled baritone in Stanford’s Nunc dimittis distasteful both in tone and phrasing – perhaps it’s just as well he remained uncredited!).

Music by Kenneth Leighton – a superb choral composer whose work is still scandalously underperformed – and Tavener completes the second disc. Song for Athene may be a somewhat obvious choice, but this choir does do it wonderfully well, and it makes a splendid closing item.

A treasure-trove, then, albeit an unusual one. There are some oddities in the booklet (though the notes themselves are fine); as well as the absences of some credits mentioned above, Berkeley’s Crux Fidelis is op.43 no1, not no.2 as given. And why do we get Sir William Walton, Sir John Tavener etc., but just plain ol’ Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley? There may be a reason, but if so, we should be told!

These are minor carps – this is a beautiful and valuable issue, splendidly performed and recorded.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by John Quinn



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