This CD should find a ready market among the thousands who listen
to Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, currently broadcast on Wednesday
afternoons with a repeat the following Sunday afternoon. And,
though it grieves me to admit it, as an alumnus of the ‘other
place’, King’s is the pre-eminent home of Choral Evensong. After
all, the Mattins and Evensong of the Book of Common Prayer
were fabricated at the reformation by a Cambridge scholar, Thomas Cranmer,
the former from Matins and Lauds, the latter from Vespers and
Compline. Though there are other fine recordings of Choral Evensong
on the market, therefore, this is the real thing, not a liturgical
reconstruction in the manner of Paul McCreesh.
This is not a service for a special occasion –
it’s for one of those rather boring Sundays after Trinity, sometimes
known as ‘normal time’, when the liturgical colour is green.
Nor is it strictly true to call it live, since on only one of
the three days in July, 1991, when the recording was made was
a congregation present. Also, at 76:29 it’s rather longer than
the usual time of slightly less than an hour, partly accounted
for by our hearing the organ prelude and postlude in full.
Nevertheless, it is pretty representative of Evensong at its
best; the only ingredient that is missing is the Office Hymn.
Several of the major names in Anglican music are
here. The prelude is provided by Herbert Howells, whose Gloucester
Service also provides the canticles, Magnificat and Nunc
Dimittis, which are at the heart of the service. Both of
these fully deserve a place among the treasures of the repertoire
alongside the music of Parry and Stanford of the older generation.
The Nunc Dimittis, in particular, strikes just the right
balance between the thoughtful tone of Simeon’s valediction
and his prediction that Jesus will be the light of the world.
We are beginning to rediscover the work of Parry,
whose Songs of Farewell furnish the anthem here, and
Stanford, especially their symphonies. Herbert Howells has
yet to be fully rediscovered, but there are some fine recordings
of his music, not just the choral works, though there are some
excellent anthologies of these on Naxos (8.554659, St John’s, Cambridge) and Hyperion (CDA67494
Wells Cathedral –a Musicweb recording of the Month – see John
Quinn’s review). His Third String Quartet
(subtitled In Gloucestershire) is one of my personal
favourites, coupled with music by his contemporary George Dyson
on a super-budget Hyperion Helios CD (CDH55045). I see that
John France liked this CD as much as I do – see his review.
The anthem is another peculiarly Anglican tradition.
At the end of Compline it became the practice in the late Middle
Ages to sing one of the four antiphons – anthems in English
– of the Virgin Mary, depending on the season of the church’s
year. When, after 1549, it became Anglican practice to reverence
the saints and seek to follow their example, chiefly that of
Mary and the apostles, rather than to pray to them, these antiphons
became obsolete, though the Prayer Book continued to require
at the end of Mattins and Evensong that ‘In Quires and places
where they sing, here followeth the anthem’.
It thus became incumbent on composers, following
the reintroduction of the Prayer Book in 1559, to provide suitable
music for the occasion and there has been a steady stream of
such compositions from Elizabethan times onwards. The anthem
here, Parry’s Lord, let me know mine end, was not written
expressly for the purpose, but it fills the position very well.
To the best of my knowledge, the Songs of Farewell have
not been recorded complete, but if the music appeals, there
is an excellent collection of Parry’s Evensong music, including
the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – both well worth
hearing – on Hyperion (CDA66273, St George’s, Windsor).
There are some much less well-known composers here,
too. Henry Ley’s setting of the prayer of Henry VI, the royal
founder of the college and its sister foundation at Eton, is used as the introit. That this introit is
somewhat sub-fusc is appropriate to the occasion: for
major festivals like Easter or Ascension Day, you’d expect –
and usually get – something much more adventurous.
The versicles are, as usual, chanted and Philips
Radcliffe’s settings of the answering responses at the beginning
and middle of the service are employed. These are perhaps slightly
more adventurous than some traditional settings but fully within
the English tradition.
The psalm, number 89, is that appointed in the
Prayer Book for the evening of the 17th day of the
month, according to the monthly cycle laid down from 1549 onwards.
The translation is that of the Coverdale Bible, a peculiar hybrid
version based on Luther’s German and the Latin Vulgate – in
1662, it should have been replaced by the more accurate Authorised
Version, like the Epistles and Gospels, but it had become so
much a part of the fabric that it was retained.
The psalm is chanted according to that peculiar
format known as Anglican Chant – its history is too complex
to describe here, but it is related to the common 16th-century
practice known as fauxbourdon or falsibordone.
It’s easily mastered and it can, at its best, sound very attractive
– the likes of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata are sometimes
adapted as chant, for example. You probably haven’t heard of
any of the three composers credited with this setting – nor
had I – but, like Radcliffe’s more recent settings of the responses,
the music is both attractive and very firmly within the tradition:
you wouldn’t hear anything like it in a Roman Catholic or Lutheran
The drawback with Anglican chant is that it tends
to be rather same-y, whether the words are joyful, as here,
or penitential. You don’t get much sense that the choir are
singing such words as “O Lord, the very heavens shall praise
thy wondrous works : and thy truth in the congregation of the
Evensong is, of course, much more than an occasion
for hearing fine music. The service opens with the exhortation,
confession and absolution in their full 1662 Prayer Book forms,
rather than in the shorter versions common since 1928. In their
full form they are relics of the reformation tradition of fulsome
public rather than private confession – the original Lutheran
practice being to persuade the sinful to stand up and confess
at the main Sunday service, the Hauptgottesdienst. If
you find this, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and the
chanting of the collects and other prayers intrusive, this recording
is not for you, since these take up almost half the CD.
If, on the other hand, you feel the urge to join
in, you can sing along to the well-known final hymn.
Elgar, though himself a devout Roman Catholic,
is also central to Anglican music and his Sonata in G provides
an excellent rousing postlude to round off a very satisfactory
recording. Like the prelude, it receives a good performance
from the Organ Scholar of the day.
It goes without saying that the singing is superb:
Stephen Cleobury and the choir could probably sing Evensong
in their sleep, but they are certainly wide awake here. I’m
not sure which items were re-done on subsequent days – indeed,
I’m surprised that it proved necessary: perhaps it was done
more for the benefit of the recording engineers, for whom live
recording in King’s can be a nightmare, especially in the case
of the Christmas Eve Nine Lessons and Carols, which are broadcast
The recording is good, but you will need to turn
up the wick somewhat for the best effect – I found another 5dB
barely sufficient. The two biblical lessons, in particular,
sound very distant – but that is how they would sound to a congregation
in the body of the chapel – its acoustics are notoriously difficult.
The booklet is informative – more so than most
in the Encore series – and attractive. To those for whom the
idea is appealing, this recording may be confidently recommended.
I can’t give a bracketed thumbs-up – if it’s not for you, you’ll
know anyway that the accolade is provisional on your liking the
contents – what it says on the label is what you get.