When as a teenager I was on holiday in England I became acquainted
with the phenomenon of choral evensong and with the singing of
English college and cathedral choirs in general,. I was captivated
by the choirs and their repertoire, and my interest has never
diminished. Therefore I am happy to be able to review this disc,
even though it is so different from the early music discs I usually
write about. An additional incentive to listening to this disc
is the fact that one year I was on holiday in precisely the town
whose cathedral is the home of this choir. I can't remember the
singing of the choir as it was too long ago, but I certainly remember
the Mappa Mundi for which the cathedral is famous. And it is nice
to hear the choir singing in this cathedral with its long history
and long-standing tradition of choral activity.
This disc consists of recordings from the pre-digital era which have
been digitally remastered. This has been done well, although
the analogue recordings have left their mark in the slight noise
which accompanies the singing. Unfortunately the booklet doesn't
give the dates of the original recordings. The lyrics of all
the hymns are printed, but there are many printing errors and
omissions. I also had to search on the internet or to look into
New Grove for the Christian names of most composers as the booklet
fails to provide us with that information.
The Hereford Cathedral Choir is certainly one of the better cathedral
choirs in Britain, as this disc demonstrates. I am generally
pleased by the singing and the sound the choir produces. I note
with satisfaction that the lower male voices are not vibrato-laden
as is the case in some other cathedral choirs. When the whole
choir sings the sound is pretty strong, but well-balanced and
polished. The rather large reverberation of the cathedral has
no negative effect on the audibility of the text.
I have some mixed feelings about the programme on this disc, though.
The last three items, which are from a different recording than
the previous 15, are the only ones devoted to Christmas. They
are a bit out of step with the programme as a whole. The largest
part is rather traditional, and there the choir is at its best.
I am talking here about hymns like 'Praise my soul the King
of heaven' and 'The day thou gavest Lord is ended'. Far less
convincing are 'Come sing the praise of Jesus' and 'Stand up,
stand up for Jesus' whose melodies are pretty dreadful in my
opinion. But they also seem to be rather unsuited to be sung
in church, and especially by a choir which is every inch British.
The melody of 'Come sing the praise of Jesus' is that of the
'Battle Hymn of the Republic'. Its character is severely damaged
in this performance, which is too slow, too neat and too sophisticated.
The melody of 'Stand up, stand up for Jesus' was originally
used for a secular text. Replacing it by a sacred text was a
rather bad idea, and the performance with frequent modulations
doesn't make things any better. British cathedral choirs should
avoid this kind of music which is of the same dubious quality
as most contemporary revival music which, alas, has made its
entrance in many Christian churches.
Unsatisfying in a different way are the pieces composed or arranged
by Bach. Here the instrumental parts are adapted to the organ
which is something Bach also did now and then, but English romantic
organs are hardly the right tools to play this kind of arrangement.
Especially if one has the original versions in one's memory
these 'adaptations' are a bit hard to swallow. In 'All glory
laud and honour' one section is sung by the trebles only, and
here the ornamentation doesn't come off very well.
To sum up: the singing is mostly impressive and enjoyable, but this
choir - and other English cathedral and college choirs - should
be more critical in their choice of repertoire. I am convinced
their unique qualities come to the fore best when they concentrate
on music which in quality and character is appropriate to sing
Johan van Veen