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In The Beginning: Choral Masterpieces of the 1940s
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Rejoice in the Lamb, op.30 (Festival Cantata) [17:53]
Ildebrando PIZZETTI (1880-1968)

Tre composizioni corali: I: Cade la sera [3:56]; II: Ululate [5:40]; III: Recordare, Domine [9:05]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, op.26 [15:32]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)

In the Beginning [18:17]
Jonathan Hyde (treble), Jeremy Kenyon (alto), James Gilchrist (tenor), Allan Smith (bass), James Birchall (bass), Frances Bourne (mezzo-soprano), Robert Houssart (organ)
Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Nethsingha (Chorister Voice Coach, Russell Burton)
Recorded 15th, 16th, 28th and 29th April and 29th May 2005, Gloucester Cathedral
AVIE AV2072 [70:39]

 

I must declare something of an interest here as I have lived in Gloucester for some nineteen years and over that period I have heard the Cathedral choir on many occasions, though I have no connection with either the Cathedral or with the choir itself. Over that period of time inevitably the membership of the choir has changed, particularly as boys’ voices have broken and at some times the choir has been stronger than at others. I would say that under its present Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, who has been in post since 2002, it is enjoying a period of vocal prosperity.

The first thing that commends this programme to me is its enterprise. I should think that all English cathedral choirs have Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice in their repertoire and many will be familiar with Rejoice in the Lamb, even if opportunities to sing it are relatively rare. However, Copland’s In the Beginning is scarcely staple fare while I venture to suggest that few if any English cathedral choirs will have ever essayed Pizzetti’s Tre composizioni corale. So, full marks to Nethsingha and his choir for not being afraid to stray from the usual well-trodden paths. They also score well under the heading of "execution", as we shall see.

It was a clever idea to put together a programme of choral music from the 1940s. However, there are some other links between some of the composers here represented apart from chronology. For instance, both the Britten and Finzi pieces were among the many works of art commissioned by that tireless and discriminating patron, Rev. Walter Hussey, when he was vicar of St. Matthews Church, Northampton. In a further link Copland and Britten became friendly during the latter’s self-imposed exile in the USA but I had not known until reading it in the notes accompanying this disc that Britten encouraged Copland to write In the Beginning.

That work was Copland’s first significant choral composition – indeed, this was a genre in which he rarely composed – though he did write four motets in 1921 while studying with Nadia Boulanger. As Copland himself said it was "brave" of him to accept the commission in 1947. If the decision was courageous so was the choice of text for it was far from an obvious decision to set the entire first chapter and several verses from the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. The result, however, was an absorbing setting for mezzo-soprano and a capella chorus. Copland himself suggested that the piece should last for about 13’30". On that basis Nethsingha’s reading appears decidedly spacious, the more so by the side of the Corydon Singers Hyperion recording (CDA66219) which lasts 15’46". However, this new Gloucester reading doesn’t sound unduly slow and I suspect that in opting for relatively broad tempi Nethsingha has very sensibly taken into account the resonant acoustics of Gloucester cathedral. The piece contains several passages where short, repeated notes predominate and in the Gloucester acoustic these would almost certainly have sounded mushy and indistinct. As it is, the dancing passage at "And let there be lights in the firmament of heaven" (track 10, 5’33") is splendidly light-footed. The choir sings very well in this finely shaped reading. The crucial solo part is taken by the young British mezzo, Frances Bourne. I think she makes a splendid job of what is a demanding role. Hers is quite a different voice from that of the admirable Catherine Denley on the Corydon version. Miss Bourne’s voice is the lighter of the two and she has a very pleasing, clear tone. Her diction is splendid and though I’ve mentioned a lightness in the voice there is no lack of warmth. I also appreciated her evident commitment to the music.

The Finzi anthem could hardly be more different. It contains some absolutely beautiful passages, characterised by typical loving vocal lines and bittersweet harmonies. In an interesting parallel with the Copland this was also Finzi’s first substantial choral work. I did wonder if the initial tempo was a bit on the swift side but, in fact, it’s only a fraction quicker than the metronome marking of crotchet = 44 and I found the tempi throughout were convincing. One reservation about this performance concerns the dynamics at the start. The first choral entry is marked pp, falling back even further to ppp within the first two pages. To my ears the choir doesn’t really sing quieter than piano in this passage although this may have something to do with the relatively close placing of the microphones. However, overall the performance is responsive and convincing. The short treble solo is sung by one of the choristers and he sings clearly and well though he does cut off sustained notes rather too quickly. In the duet for tenor and bass, "O soft, self-wounding Pelican!" it’s luxury casting indeed to have James Gilchrist on the tenor line. He is well partnered by James Birchall, one of the Gloucester basses. The concluding, languorous "Amens" sound as heart-easingly beautiful as they should.

Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb sets a truly odd text by the eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart. It’s well done by the Gloucester choir. The various solo sections are all effectively sung and once again James Gilchrist is on hand to lend particular distinction to the tenor solo, "For the flowers", which he delivers with plangent eloquence. The extraordinary section "For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour" is particularly powerful in this performance. The singing burns with conviction and Robert Houssart conjures up some massive sonorities from the organ. This section is even more overwhelming than the very fine account from St. John’s College, Cambridge on Naxos (8.554791). However, later on, in the section beginning "For the instruments are by their rhimes" I thought the organ sound was just a bit too much of a good thing; it could and should have been reined back a bit at this point so as not to dominate the singers. The work closes with a sustained hushed passage beginning at "For at that time malignity ceases" and the Gloucester performers manage this very well indeed, conveying a fine sense of atmosphere.

The music of the conservative Italian, Ildebrando Pizzetti will be unknown to many people. Hyperion has issued a couple of discs of his music, most notably a very fine recording of his often-serene Messa di Requiem of 1922 (CDA67017). These three pieces, composed some two decades later and all for a capella choir, were completely new to me. The first, ‘Cade la sera’ (‘Evening falls’) is a setting of part of a nocturnal poem by the composer’s friend Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) which muses on the countryside round Assisi. This sounds to me to evoke a deeply nostalgic longing for the peace and beauties of the Italian campagna at a time when Italy was in the grips of Fascism and war. The other two pieces respectively take words from Isaiah and from the Book of Lamentations. The former, ‘Ululate, quia prope est dies Domine’ (‘Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand’) is for the most part a powerful, emotional piece but it ends quietly, with a subdued plea for God’s mercy. The concluding piece ‘Recordare Domine’ is, at just over nine minutes long (in this performance), nearly as long as its two companions combined. This is a dark and powerful plea for mercy in adversity. The music places great demands upon the singers, especially the trebles, and though the boys sound to be stretched by the music they prove equal to the challenge. This is one of those occasions where it actually enhances the music if one feels that the performers are being taken to their limits. The singing in all three pieces is committed and potent but that’s especially true of the performance of this last one. This fine piece eventually subsides into a consolatory, trusting ending

One or two pretty small reservations aside the standard of performance on this CD is excellent. It’s good to hear the Gloucester choir in such fine fettle. Andrew Nethsingha clearly has the measure of all the music and, having trained his choir very thoroughly, he leads them in very convincing performances. Robert Houssart’s accompaniments in the Britten and Finzi pieces display the capabilities of the cathedral’s organ inventively.

Having sung in the cathedral on a good number of occasions and heard many more musical performances there I know that the acoustics of this superb building are notoriously tricky. The engineers were clearly aware of the potential problems that the resonant acoustic might bring. They have opted to record both the choir and the organ relatively closely. However, they have skilfully allowed enough space around the sound so that there is a natural bloom on the sound, just the right degree of resonance and a proper ambience.

I enjoyed this disc very much. It offers a stimulating and enterprising programme, which is well executed. I can honestly put local pride aside and give this disc an objective but very warm recommendation.

John Quinn

 




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