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Every Day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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English Choral Music
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924):

Magnificat in G, op. 81* [4’13"]
Nunc Dimittis in G, Op. 81 [4’18"]
Justorum Animae from Three Latin Motets [3’24"]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934):

Ave verum corpus, Op. 2, No 1 [2’39"]
Give unto the Lord (Psalm XXIX), Op. 74 [7’50"]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958):

The Call* [2’05"]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983):

Magnificat, St. Paul’s [6’33"]
Nunc Dimittis, St. Paul’s [4’59"]
Paean for organ ** [6’03"]
Take him, earth, for cherishing [7’44"]
Peter HURFORD (b. 1930):

Litany to the Holy Spirit* [2’56"]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956):

Welcome Sweet and Sacred Feast, Op. 27, No. 3 [7’31"]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986):

Tenebrae Motets – Third Nocturne, Op. 72: I Eram quasi agnus innocens [2’50"]; II Una hora non potuistis [2’02"]; III Seniores populi [2’22"]
Magnificat in A flat [4’18"]
Gerald FINZI:

God is gone up, Op. 27, No. 2 [4’24"]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983):

Set me as a seal upon thine heart [3’34"]
Soloists: Oliver Lepage-Dean (treble) and Edward Lyon (tenor)
Coronation Te Deum (arr. Simon Preston & Mark Blatchly) [9’50"]
Gloria from Missa Brevis [3’24"]
Soloists: Oliver Lepage-Dean (treble) and Geoffrey Silver (tenor)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976):

A Hymn to the Virgin [3’06"]
Soloists: William Goldring (treble); Christopher de la Hoyde (alto); Simon Wall (tenor); Reuben Thomas (bass)
Jubilate Deo [2’38"]
Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27 [10’20"]
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 [4’21"]
Soloist: Benjamin Durrant (treble)
Crux Fidelis, Op. 43, No. 2 [6’53"]
Soloist: Alan Clayton (tenor)
Look up, Sweet Babe, Op. 43, No.2 [4’34"]
Soloist: James Geidt (treble)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988):

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniese {8’16"]
An Easter Sequence – Sortie [4’11"]
Soloist: Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet)
Sir John TAVENER (b. 1944)

The Lamb [3’47"]
The Lord’s Prayer [3’30"]
Song for Athene [5’43"]
*Oliver Lepage-Dean (treble)
**Iain Farrington (organ)
The 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 CDs: 149’51"]


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Over a four-year span Naxos made a splendid series of recordings of English church music with the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge under their distinguished Director of Music, Christopher Robinson. The last of these discs (I assume, unless there is something still to be issued) was devoted to Elgar and was set down immediately before Robinson retired in the summer of 2003. All the CDs were devoted to the music of a single composer.

The single exception is a miscellaneous collection entitled An Evening Hymn, which showcased the remarkable talent of treble, Oliver Lepage-Dean. (I read somewhere that his voice broke within days of the recording sessions. If so, his voice was captured just in the nick of time.) Three items from that recital are included here. Master Lepage-Dean sings the beautiful solo in the Stanford Magnificat exceptionally well. His voice is pure and focused and his tuning and diction are consistently spot-on in this item and elsewhere. I was less convinced by his performance of the Vaughan Williams song, not because his singing of it is less than good (it isn’t) but because this is an essentially masculine song and I miss the extra range, depth and weight of tone that a baritone can bring. On the other hand the litany setting by Peter Hurford is an entirely apt choice. It’s a simple, dignified piece and it is sung here with eloquence and confidence.

For the most part the music is grouped by composer and generally speaking the chosen pieces complement and contrast effectively. So, for example, the reflective, rather conventional setting of the Ave verum corpus by Elgar is an excellent foil to the much grander canvass that is Give unto the Lord. Both pieces are given first rate performances that conclusively show that Christopher Robinson left the choir in fine fettle when he retired.

No such compilation would be complete without music by Herbert Howells and some of his very finest compositions are included here. The St Paul’s canticles are probably the best of the settings that he made, demonstrating his exceptional sensitivity to words and his unique harmonic palette. These canticles are very well done by Robinson and his choir, as is the masterly motet, Take him, earth, for cherishing.

The two Finzi items are just as successful. Welcome Sweet and Sacred Feast is a wholly characteristic, subtle offering while God is gone up is much more extrovert, as befits its subject matter. This latter piece is, for me, one of the highlights of the collection. Another is Walton’s exquisite little anthem, Set me as a seal upon thine heart. Here we find yet another effective contrast for the main offering by Walton is his absolutely splendid Coronation Te Deum, given here in a most effective arrangement for organ accompaniment which manages to convey the full panoply of Walton’s inspiration.

John Tavener is represented by a simple, directly devotional setting of the Lord’s Prayer as well as by the ubiquitous The Lamb and Song for Athene. Far less familiar to the general public is the music of Kenneth Leighton. He is particularly well served here by a setting of the evening canticles dedicated to Bernard Rose. The Magnificat is distinguished by some vigorous choral writing and a demanding organ part. It culminates in an ebullient ‘Gloria’. By contrast, there’s a gentle ecstasy at the opening of the Nunc Dimittis but the setting expands to an affirmative conclusion with a splendidly sonorous organ part.

Lennox Berkeley also receives proper attention in extracts from a CD released to mark his centenary. The deceptively straightforward (but, in reality, very demanding) The Lord is my Shepherd is a delight as is the Richard Crawshaw setting, Look up, Sweet Babe.

In truth, the standard of the music on this pair of discs is consistently high and so is the standard of the performances. Christopher Robinson’s tenure at St. John’s (1991-2003) was the culmination of a long career as one of this country’s most distinguished choral conductors. His fastidious attention to tonal blend and diction and his dedication to the music he performed are self-evident in everything the choir sings here. It’s a pity that the various organ scholars aren’t credited for all play splendidly.

Presumably, this compilation marks the end of the Naxos – St. John’s collaboration, at least in terms of the involvement of Christopher Robinson. This is a good time, then, to pay tribute to Andrew Walton, the producer of all the CDs (except the Lepage-Dean solo album which was produced and engineered by John Rutter.) Walton was ably supported by Eleanor Thompson who engineered all the recordings, except the Walton and Tavener collections, which were the work of Tony Faulkner. I’ve heard the whole series and can attest to the excellence of the productions. To my ears (though I know not everyone holds this view) the recorded sound throughout the series has been very good indeed. The booklet notes have been first class as well. So far as I’ve been able to check the notes accompanying this set are a usefully condensed version of the original notes. Full texts are supplied.

This collection is an ideal introduction to the full series of recordings from which they are taken. It is also a fine tribute to the excellent work of Christopher Robinson. We can only hope that Naxos will soon be recording this fine choir again under Robinson’s distinguished successor, David Hill.

I recommend this excellent and enjoyable collection with great enthusiasm.

John Quinn


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