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Choral Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Master Tallisís Testament* [7:00]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Sancte Deus [6:43]
Heathcote STATHAM (1889-1973) Preces [1:34]
Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Chant: Psalm 91 [5:52]
Michael PETERSON (1924-2006) Chant: Psalm 131 [2:11]; First Lesson (Isaiah 6 1-8) [1:52]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) Magnificat (Tewkesbury Service) [8:57]; Second Reading (1 Corinthians 13) [2:45]; Nunc Dimittis (Tewkesbury Service) [4:50]; Creed [0:57]
Heathcote STATHAM Responses and Collects [6:27]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Valiant-for-Truth [5:39]; Prayers and Blessing [2:38]
Hymn: The day thou gavest (St. Clement, Descant: John Scott (b. 1956) [3:28]
Herbert HOWELLS Te Deum (Collegium Regale) [9:31]
Louis VIÈRNE (1870-1937) Toccata in B minor* [4:10]
The Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury/Benjamin Nicholas
*Carleton Etherington (organ)
rec. Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, England, 26 June, 5 July 2006. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34713 [74:37]

Itís sometimes said of a disc that it "marks the end of an era". Well in this case that statement is more than usually accurate. For thirty-two years the choir of The Abbey School, Tewkesbury, sang Choral Evensong in the townís magnificent abbey church on most weekday evenings during term time. Sadly, in 2006 the school was obliged to shut its doors. So this disc was recorded as a kind of valedictory offering. Given the nature of the enterprise, the decision was made to record a complete service of Evensong, including the spoken parts of the service and Iím sure that was correct. The spoken passages are separately tracked, so if the listener wishes they can be omitted but to do so would, I believe, destroy the sense of place and occasion thatís at the heart of this CD.

The music has been shrewdly chosen not just to show to best advantage the choir Ė and the Milton organ of Tewkesbury Abbey Ė but also to reflect the heritage of the church and its environs. So Gloucestershire composers, in the shape of Howells and Vaughan Williams, are represented; one of the psalm chants is by the late Michael Peterson, the first Director of Music at the Abbey School; and, perhaps most significantly of all, the canticles are sung to a recent setting by Gabriel Jackson, here receiving its first recording. This was one of several sets of canticles expressly written for the choir. It should also be said that the two lessons are read respectively by the Headmaster of the Abbey School and by the Vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey.

The choir sings very well and generally I applaud the direction of Ben Nicholas. One area in which I do take slight issue with him, however, is in the chanting of the psalms. Both psalms seem to me to be taken very steadily. In the case of Psalm 131 this is not inappropriate for both the text and the style of the chant and, in any event, the psalm is only four verses long. However, Psalm 91 has sixteen verses and Nicholasís spacious treatment of it is rather too much of a good thing, I find. He seems a bit too ready to indulge expressive points at the expense of flow and as a result the psalm sounds laboured.

Elsewhere, however, his direction is much more assured. The lovely Tallis introit is well pointed and here the music does indeed flow. He also does the Jackson canticles very convincingly. I hadnít heard this setting before but I found it very impressive. In his booklet notes Nicholas suggests that these canticles are, in some ways, a homage to Herbert Howells. In the Magnificat thatís particularly apparent in, say, the long, melismatic opening for trebles alone, accompanied by a light, bubbling organ part. Later thereís an enviable tenor line at "He hath filled the hungry" and I also liked very much the gentle radiance in the music at "He remembering his mercy". The exciting doxology is underpinned by a toccata-like organ accompaniment and the setting rises to a majestic "as it was in the beginning" of which Iím sure Howells himself would have approved. The Nunc Dimittis is prayerful, beginning with tenors and basses only. The whole choir joins in at "To be a light" with some luminous harmonies that evoke Howells. The music for the doxology differs from that of the Magnificat Ė the Magnificatís music would have been unsuitable. Here Jackson gives us a more flowing passage that suits the canticle ideally. This is a fine set of canticles, which I hope will be taken up widely. Their debut recording is an auspicious one.

Vaughan Williamsís visionary anthem is well done. The music can seem episodic but Nicholas makes it a seamless whole. Itís not usual to have the Te Deum sung at Evensong but Iím certainly not going to quibble when the chosen setting is one of the finest in all Anglican music. And anyway, I think the occasion of this recording warrants its inclusion. Itís performed here with relish and commitment. At the end of the piece the magisterial passage Ė in Howellsís hands - "Let me never be confounded", is sung with wonderful confidence. Was this, I wonder, something of a statement of intent?

Iíve mentioned the singers and conductor but have done scant justice to the organ playing of Carleton Etherington. In a word itís splendid. He accompanies with finesse and imagination Ė there are some lovely, albeit discreet touches in the psalms. He plays the opening Howells voluntary quite beautifully and he gives an exuberant account of Vièrneís toccata at the end Ė but, enjoyable though that is, one regrets that the otherwise English programme could not have been completed by an English organ work at the very end.

This is a splendid recreation of the timeless service of Evensong in one of this countryís very finest non-Cathedral churches Ė and, frankly a church that puts several cathedrals in the shade. The music is beautifully performed by a well-trained and committed choir. The sound is very good, reporting both choir and organ clearly and truthfully. The notes are good, but no texts are provided. One detail spoils the presentation. Was it not possible to find an image of Tewkesbury Abbey itself for the booklet cover?

So this CD marks the close of a chapter in the musical life of Tewkesbury Abbey. However, there is a happy ending. After the schoolís closure had been announced another local independent school, Dean Close School, Cheltenham, offered places which most of the choristers were able to take up and, now renamed the Schola Cantorum, the choir continues the regular rhythm of the churchís year, singing Evensong several nights each week during term time. Thatís a cause for gratitude and celebration.

John Quinn


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