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There is a Spirit : Music from Worcester College, Oxford
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
A Christmas Caroll Op.21 (1953) [7:15]
Missa Brevis Op.50 (1968) [12:35]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901–1986)
Infant Holy Op.121 (1963) [3:07]
Three Motets Op.76 (1952) [8:48]
And when the Builders Op.125 (1964) [3:33]
A Hymn to the Virgin Op.13 No.2 (1925) [2:42]
Robert SAXTON (b. 1953)
The Child of Light (1985) [3:36]
Robert SHERLAW JOHNSON (1932–2000)
Missa Aedis Christi (1992) [10:16]
Stephen OLIVER (1950–1992)
Psalm 150 [4:17]
Andrew GRANT (b. 1963)
Ave Verum (1995) [4:00]
A good-night (2002) [3:00]
The Chapel Choir of Worcester College, Oxford; Daniel Chambers (organ); Thomas Primrose
rec. Chapel of Worcester College, Oxford, December 2005
LAMMAS LAMM 195D [64:16]
 


To be quite frank, my first reaction when receiving this disc was to think that this was yet another collection of miscellaneous choral pieces designed to show-off the versatility and excellence of the Chapel Choir of Worcester College, Oxford; this it achieves – in a way. Taking a closer look at the composers’ names and at the works dispelled my worst fears. Moreover, the programme displays logic, in that all composers represented had or have a close association with Worcester College. Rubbra, Leighton and Sherlaw Johnson have been Fellows in Music at the College, whereas Saxton has been the Fellow in Music since 1999. The late Stephen Oliver was an undergraduate, having composition lessons with Leighton and Sherlaw Johnson. Finally, Andrew Grant is the current Chapel Music Consultant at Worcester.
 
Edmund Rubbra is represented by works from both ends of his long composing life and by a fine work from his mature years (Three Motets Op.76, 1952). The central motet, that gives this release its collective title, is particularly fine, and  is one of the finest short choral works that he penned throughout all his life. I do not know if the version of A Hymn to the Virgin Op.13 No.2 - incidentally setting the same text that Britten was to set a few years later - was made by the composer – or not – but it works really well when sung by treble voices and organ. Infant Holy Op.121 is a simple harmonisation of a traditional Polish carol, whereas And when the Builders Op.125 is the only work that Rubbra composed for Worcester College on the occasion of the 250th Anniversary Commemoration, and is thus appropriately festive.
 
Kenneth Leighton’s Missa Brevis Op.50 is reasonably well-known, but A Christmas Caroll Op.21 from 1953 is a marvellous rarity, hitherto unrecorded and rarely heard, if at all. It is an impressive setting for baritone, chorus and organ - or orchestra - on an almost symphonic scale. This comparatively early work nevertheless displays many Leighton fingerprints, but the beautiful coda still nods towards Gerald Finzi. A real little gem.
 
There was a time when Robert Sherlaw Johnson was best known as a pianist and a highly regarded Messiaen interpreter, as well as the composer of impressive, strongly innovative piano sonatas. The magnificent Second Piano Sonata was recorded by the late John Ogdon many years ago. Later, however, he made his mark as a composer of substantial works such as the choral piece The Resurrection of Feng-Huang. His Missa Aedis Christi was originally conceived for Worcester College. Only when it became clear that its technical challenges were beyond the choir’s capacities, was the piece re-routed to Christ Church Cathedral - hence the title. Now, here it is beautifully sung by the choir that should have premiered it. The music does not sound complex or intractably difficult; but I am sure that it is quite challenging, and poses a number of technical problems; intonation for one.
 
The late Stephen Oliver is generally best known for his many operas, but he also composed instrumental music such as a recorder concerto and Character Pieces for Winds, as well as choral music such as his effective setting of Psalm 150 for treble voices and organ.
 
Saxton’s The Child of Light is a well-crafted carol, setting words by the composer, and may be more familiar, were it only because it has already been recorded before: Continuum CCD 1040 (possibly still available).
 
This nicely varied programme opens with a fine Ave Verum by Andrew Grant and closes with another nice setting by this composer, A good-night written in memory of the Queen Mother.
 
In short, this is a most desirable selection of unfamiliar choral works by some of the finest British composers of the 20th century in excellent performances and very fine recorded sound.

Hubert Culot
 

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