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This Holy Temple
James THOMAS (b. 1963)
Ecce sacerdos magnus (2007) [4:59]; O mundi pater unice (2006) [2:29]; Sacerdos et Pontifex (2007) [4:52]; Bless, O God most high (2005) [2:50]; Benedicite (1997) [5:19]; Benedictus (2003) [5:12]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
God is gone up, Op. 27, No. 2 (1951) [5:03]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Four Motets from The Ivory Tree (2005) [13:26]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Declare the Wonders [5:55]
Dobri HRISTOV (1875-1941)
Tebe poem [1:50]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
God be in my head (1989) [2:11]
St. Edmundsbury Cathedral Choir/James Thomas
David Humphreys (organ)
rec. St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, UK, July 2008
REGENT REGCD295 [54:08] 



Experience Classicsonline

Situated in the attractive Suffolk town of Bury St. Edmunds, the parish church, much of which dates from the early sixteenth century, only became a cathedral in the 1960s. There is no choir school, and the thirty or so singers rehearse and sing at services in their own time, a considerable commitment. The choir broadcasts regularly and has undertaken many tours abroad.

James Thomas was appointed Director of Music in 1997 after studying in Cambridge and Rouen, and previous professional engagements in Caen, Blackburn and Chichester. Amongst other biographical information gleaned from the booklet, we learn that his cat is named after the one which features in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, and his dog shares his name with a famous comic literary hero. He is a composer too, and this disc features six of his works. Ecce sacerdos magnus was composed to commemorate the retirement of the Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich. It is a ceremonial piece with a part for three horns in addition to the organ, and features an attractive, recurring rising scale figure. More interesting, to my ears, is O mundi pater unice, an unaccompanied work which begins and ends with some deft writing opposing two choral groups. The unaccompanied Sacerdos et Pontifex puts to solemn but effective use three elements, plainsong, homophonic choral writing and a solo baritone, well taken by chorister David Sadler. Benedicite and Benedictus are both lively, organ-accompanied liturgical pieces. The former brings in the hymn tune Easter Alleluia, usually sung to the words “All creatures of our God and King” and which Holst used to telling effect in his setting of Psalm 148. All this music is absolutely tonal and, the two latter works especially, not especially original, though undeniably effective in a liturgical setting. The short, unaccompanied and rather touching Bless, O God most high, on the other hand, suggests that its composer might well find his own voice if only he is given the time to seek it out.

It was in the Benedicite that the sound of the trebles slightly struggling with rapid, high-lying phrases first made me realise that I wasn’t listening to one of the country’s top-class cathedral choirs. I decided, then, to listen to the one piece on the disc which I was able to compare with other versions, Finzi’s splendid anthem God is gone up. Alongside King’s College Choir (1968 vintage, EMI) and St. John’s (2001, Naxos) St. Edmundsbury lacks the last ounce of security. Attack is occasionally imprecise, especially in the upper reaches. But this is a very marginal thing, and most listeners would be unaware of it, I think, outside of direct comparison. The performance is more cautious, especially beside St. John’s, the tempo slower, but the decision to insist on a sustained line results in an interpretation which is very appealing and which loses very little in exuberance.

The choral writing in Roxanna Panufnik’s Declare the Wonders is largely homophonic over a florid organ accompaniment, perhaps with a view to allowing the text to emerge clearly. The choir struggles again somewhat in the trickier moments, but this only marginally detracts from the pleasure of hearing the piece. Judith Bingham’s impressive motets put humming tones to effective use, and sometimes surprise the listener, the second motet defiant and powerful, for example, rather than lachrymose as the text might lead us to expect. With this disc, the Bulgarian composer Dobri Hristov makes his first appearance in my collection with his short but affecting piece which the choir learned for a tour to Sofia in 2008. The disc ends affectingly with Rutter’s simple – and quite characteristic – setting of God be in my head.

Most of the music on the disc was composed especially for the choir and they sing the whole programme with relish. Tuning is excellent, as is blend and balance, though one might have hoped for more power in the bass register from time to time. David Humphreys’ organ accompaniments are exemplary, and the recording is excellent even if, from time to time, I found it favoured the organ a little too much. The booklet gives information on the performers and includes full texts and short descriptive notes on all the pieces. If the programme appeals the disc will bring much pleasure.

William Hedley



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