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Christmas at St. Johnís College, Cambridge
Chapel Bell [0.35]
Plainsong Rorate cæli [5:21]
Hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel [3:25]
Antiphon: O Sapientia [1:00]
Otto GOLDSCHMIDT (1829-1907) A Tender Shoot [2:08]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose (1919) [3:15]
Hymn: Lo! He comes with clouds descending (descant by Christopher Robinson) [4:44]
Antiphon: O Adonai [1:08]
Edward NAYLOR (1867-1934) Vox dicentes: Clama (1911) [9:00]
Antiphon: O Radix Jesse [1:02]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) The clouded Heaven (1998) [4:50]
Antiphon: O Clavis David [1:09]
John RUTTER (b. 1943) There is a flower (1986) [4:28]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) This have I done for my true love (1916) [5:29]
Antiphon: O Oriens [0:57]
Francis POTT (b. 1957) Lullay my liking (2004) [6:40]
Antiphon: O Rex gentium [0:58]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) arr. David HILL Bethlehem Down (1927) [4:49]
Antiphon: O Emmanuel [1:00]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943) O magnum mysterium (1994) [6:50]
Hymn: O come, all ye faithful (descant by David Hill) [3:54]
Antiphon: Hodie Christus natus est [1:07]
The Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge/Paul Provost (organ)/David Hill
rec. St. Johnís College Chapel, 13-15 January 2006. DDD
HYPERION CDA67576 [74:41]

 

In the city and university of Cambridge the Advent service with Carols at St. Johnís College, given on the weekend of the first Sunday in Advent, and the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kingís College stand like twin liturgical pillars at the opening and close of the season of Advent. The Kingís service has won international renown thanks to the live radio broadcast of the service each year by the BBC. The service at St. Johnís is not quite so famous, though in recent years the BBC has broadcast that event also. Listening to it most years on the radio, I have found it to be as essential a part of the preparation for Christmas. Indeed, to be frank, I find the choice of music usually more interesting than the bill of fayre at Kingís on Christmas Eve. Now this Hyperion CD gives us a good representation of at least the musical core of that service.

In fact, the selection of music goes beyond Advent Sunday. As Andrew Burn remarks in his excellent notes, "the sequence of words and music takes the listener on a spiritual journey that starts in the darkness of Advent anticipation and continues to Christmas, the Epiphany and even (in Holstís This have I done for my true love) to Easter with its promise of redemption." One other thing that is worth noting is the number of connections that are made in the programme. Thus we find a carol by Otto Goldschmidt, the founder of The Bach Choir in London, of which David Hill has been conductor for some years. Thereís also a link with Winchester Cathedral, where Hill was Master of the Music prior to his appointment at St. Johnís. This is Judith Binghamís The clouded Heaven, which was jointly commissioned for that cathedral and for St Johnís and which achieved simultaneous premières at both places on Advent Sunday 1998. Thereís a St. Johnís connection with Herbert Howells, who was acting organist there during World War II and who became an honorary fellow of the college in 1966. The pieces by John Rutter and Francis Pott were written for St. Johnís choir. Finally itís good to find David Hillís distinguished predecessor, Christopher Robinson represented by his telling descant for Wesleyís majestic hymn, Lo! He comes with clouds descending.

We are summoned by the tolling of the College bell. Then in the ante-chapel the Advent Prose, Rorate cæli is sung. The choir processes to the quire stalls singing O come, O come, Emmanuel. As I recall, at the Advent Sunday service proper this is a congregational hymn, accompanied by full organ and part of me misses that stirring sound. Instead the choir is unaccompanied until the organ joins them for the last verse.

Then we hear the first of the seven "Great ĎOí" antiphons. During the last week of Advent each of these is sung in turn at Evensong or Vespers before and after the Magnificat. Andrew Burn draws on the researches of Dr. Mary Berry to tell us that in monastic communities there was a definite pecking order according to which the first antiphon would have been sung by the Abbot, the second by the Prior and so on. In the light of this fascinating information, which was new to me, I rather wish that David Hill had allotted a different singer to act as cantor for each antiphon. As it is, tenor Peter Morton intones them all, and very good he is too.

These antiphons occur at intervals throughout the remainder of the programme, coming in between a splendid selection of carols. Otto Goldschmidtís offering is a lovely, fluent little piece and itís beautifully sung by Hillís choir. They also give a winning account of Howellsí A Spotless Rose. This is a wonderful gem of a piece, but isnít there a danger that itís becoming excessively ubiquitous? It seems to crop up on every CD of carols these days. It would have been nice if David Hill had chosen another of the composerís Christmas pieces, perhaps its marvellous companion. Here is the Little Door.

Edward Naylorís superb and ambitious anthem, Vox dicentes: Clama receives a vivid and dramatic performance. Hill ensures his choir makes the most of the dynamic contrasts within the piece and the radiant ending is delivered splendidly. Judith Binghamís setting is imaginative Ė and very difficult. However, though the singing is technically completely secure I did wonder if the choir was not singing too loudly Ė or recorded too closely. Most of the music is marked mp or mf - there isnít a marking louder than mf Ė but it rarely sounds that quiet in this performance. I readily acknowledge that the fearsome demands of tessitura made on the trebles and tenors in particular make quiet singing very difficult but one consequence is that the important organ part is often inaudible. This is a pity since Binghamís restless, unquiet music is well worth hearing. Having criticised the dynamics, however, I must add that the choir copes excellently with the very difficult, dense chromatic harmonies.

John Rutter inhabits a very different musical world, of course. Iíve long thought that There is a flower is one of the most effective of his carols. The undulating melody is memorable and disarming and the choir does the carol splendidly. They also rise superbly to the different and even greater challenges of Holstís This have I done for my true love. This is a magnificent and resourceful piece. On this occasion the rhythms are sprung excellently, as they need to be, and the often-complex choral textures are delivered with admirable clarity.

Francis Pottís Lullay my liking confirms the high opinion Iíve formed of his choral music on other occasions. Itís a fine piece with plenty of variety, featuring an impressive use of different choral textures. The familiar Warlock setting is given in an unfamiliar guise. David Hill has combined the original a cappella choral setting (verses 2 and 4) and the solo-song version (verses 1 and 3). The organ accompanies the first and third verses, which are allocated respectively to trebles and the men. I have to say I think the result is unsatisfying, neither one thing nor the other. For me, the chaste sound of the choral version with its intriguing harmonies is the preferable way to hear this rapt carol and I rather wish Dr. Hill had contented himself with that.

Morten Lauridsenís O magnum mysterium, aptly described by its composer as "a quiet song of profound inner joy", is rapidly acquiring the status of a modern Christmas Classic. I think itís a sublime piece though I do hope it doesnít become over-exposed. The present performance is quite superb. The choir sustain the long, slow lines magnificently, something which requires complete concentration. The tuning is magnificent.

At the very end, after David Hillís own exuberant descant has crowned O come, all ye faithful the choir processes out to the ante chapel whence they came while the tenors and basses sing the Christmas Day antiphon Hodie Christus natus est. Thus the celebration of Christmas at St. Johnís is very satisfactorily brought to a conclusion.

This is a very fine disc indeed. Though Iíve expressed one or two reservations the overall impression with which Iím left is one of great satisfaction and pleasure. The programme has been assembled with great imagination and the execution is well nigh flawless. When one adds in excellent and very atmospheric sound, first rate notes and texts and translations, it all adds up to a very distinguished package indeed. I shall be surprised if I encounter a finer CD of Christmas music this year.

John Quinn


 



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