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England, My England - Choir of King’s College Cambridge
For list of works performed see foot of review
Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury, Philip Ledger, Sir David Willcocks
rec. 1965 -2009
EMI CLASSICS 2289440
[77:07 + 74.46]

 

Experience Classicsonline


I guess that a lot of purchasers of this new release will just bang it into their CD players in the car and let rip. They will allow this music to envelop them as they drive along the West Lancs Road or around the M25. And there is probably nothing wrong with that. In fact, it was only the other day that a car pulled up at the traffic-lights at the bottom of Regent Street. The day was hot and sunny: the windows were down. Yet the wall of sound that nearly knocked me over was not ‘rap’ or ‘hip-hop’ – it was the ‘Final’ from Louis Vierne’s great Sixth Symphony for Organ. A million watts of energy and sheer naked, power! But I wonder whether the driver was actually listening? Concentration is what is needed for this present CD, in spite of its largely ‘popular’ appeal. It is not a fashion accessory, but a compendium of some of the greatest and most uplifting music written in England and performed by the country’s most the iconic choirs.

I reviewed these CDs over a considerable time – with my remote control in my hand. I explored. I did not listen end to end: I grouped and contrasted and stopped and started. Fundamentally, it is always a problem I have with a major compilation – be it Johann Sebastian Bach, Perry Como or Jimmy Hendrix.

What tips can I give for a logical exploration of England, My England? Well, first of all it can be sliced vertically or horizontally, by which I mean chronologically or by genre. I would prefer the latter. Now I imagine that most purchasers of a double CD of music by the world’s greatest ‘church’ choir (not just my opinion!) will have a certain sympathy with religious and liturgical music even if they do not sit in the choir stalls or the pews twice on a Sunday! So, perhaps the first group of pieces to explore are the Hymns. These are the ones that my late mother would have wanted to listen to. She was always singing them around the house and enjoyed hearing them sung by a good choir. All the big hitters are here. The ultimately tragic Abide with Me written by Henry Francis Lyte as he lay dying from tuberculosis and later to become a favourite of the Military and the F.A. Cup Final. The fine processional Praise my Soul the King of Heaven, the masterpiece of hymnology by Vaughan Williams, Come down of Love Divine and his Coronation arrangement of the massive Old Hundredth-  All People that on Earth do Dwell. But King’s College do not forget the more intimate moments associated with the service of Evensong. Favourites include Orlando Gibbons exquisite Drop, drop slow tears and the ever popular The Day that thou gavest Lord is ended is beautifully sung.

I am pleased that the compilers of these CDs have chosen to include a few examples of that great Church of England gift to musical endeavour – the Anglican Chant. So often these chants are performed by choirs and congregations doing their very best, but not quite getting there. They are to be commended for this effort and their upholding of ‘tradition’. But for sheer perfection King’s College takes some beating. Four Psalms are presented here – including Oh how amiable are thy dwellings, The Lord is my Shepherd and the last psalm in the Psalter – O Praise God in his holiness. The Book of Psalms is one of most spiritual and inspiring in the Good Book and deserves both thought and attention.  For my money it is always helpful to hear them chanted, as opposed to the metrical versions so often heard in Free Churches or worse still, to the machinations of a Church Music Group – strumming guitars and the inevitable keyboard!

The next tranche to explore could be the liturgical pieces. Rutter’s Pie Jesu and Requiem aeternam will appeal to people who like his music! William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus could well be used at a High Church service of the Benediction of the Holy Sacrament and add vitally to its numinous atmosphere. Britten’s Jubilate Deo probably does not get many outings in parish churches across the nation, but it certainly deserves it place here, with its quicksilver organ accompaniment. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s great Mass in G minor is represented with the stunningly beautiful Kyrie: it is a perfect fusion of Tudor and 20th Century choral music. The Victorian masters are well represented with Stanford’s fine Magnificat in G. This is one of my favourite settings of this inspiring text.

Then there are the potboilers. Zadok the Priest from the pen of that honorary Englishman, George Frederic Handel gets the first disc off to a great start. Another Coronation anthem, Parry’s I was Glad closes the proceedings. Parry is also represented with his ubiquitous Jerusalem. One wonders just how many singers of this hymn know who wrote the words or the music and has a clue as to what it means? Holst appears with an extract from the Planets Suite- I vow to thee, my country. Often regarded by certain elements in the political spectrum as being imperialistic and jingoistic, this work has once again taken its place in the repertoire after it was used by the Prince and Princess of Wales at their wedding in 1981. I suggest to detractors from this great song that they read the words – the ‘other country’ is not Blighty as they want to believe, but the Kingdom of Heaven! And lastly, there is the great Hallelujah Chorus. I wonder if people still stand for this, and if they know why?

Anthems are well represented here with Tallis’s magnificent construction for forty parts – Spem in Alium. Another of his fine works is the beautiful O nata lux de lumine. One work I did not know was Balfour Gardner’s Evening Hymn. It is a truly lovely and haunting piece. It is sad that so little of his music has survived. Stanford’s Beati quorum via and Vaughan Williams Antiphon are two important works that are well established in the repertoire, though I like to hear the latter as part of a full performance of the Five Mystical Songs. Other composers represented by anthems include Henry Purcell, Robert Parsons, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, Edward Bairstow, John Ireland and John Taverner.  However, my favourite of this group is the delicious and utterly moving Faire is the heaven by William Harris. It is worth buying the album for this alone!

Then there are the unclassifiables. I wonder what possessed anyone (John Cameron did, bless him) to set the Lux Aeterna to the great ninth variation, Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It is all wrong. Although I guess it works (sort of) musically, I hate the idea of hacking around a masterpiece. As a musical snob, I only tolerate Nimrod at the Remembrance Day Parade, out of respect for the bravery of the women and men commemorated.  It needs to be in its designated place between the 8th and the 10th variations and nowhere else.

If a militant atheist was given this CD as a present at least they would have two pieces they could listen to with a clear conscience. Firstly there is Purcell’s fine Come ye sons of art away from the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary for soloists, chorus and instruments. And secondly there is the exquisite To be sung of a summer night on the water by Fred. Delius. I rate this alongside Stanford’s Bluebird for sheer beauty and perfection.

The title of the CD is refreshingly ambiguous. Different people will read different things into it. I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s short story, a friend suggested that it was derived from the largely forgotten poet W.H. Henley’s largely forgotten poem “What have I done for you/England, my England”. And then there was a film about the life of Henry Purcell with that name...

Whatever the derivation of this title, this double CD is great value and is a fine introduction to English Choral music. This is sung with the unmistakable King’s College sound that evokes the atmosphere of the fundamentally Christian religious sensibilities of this country. This is a CD that can be enjoyed by all lovers of choral music, irrespective of their belief. It is a CD that manifests the spirit of Christianity as well as the long tradition of that faith in England and her music.

John France

List of works:
George Frederic Handel
Zadok the Priest
Edward Elgar arr. John Cameron Lux aeterna
John Goss Hymn: Praise my soul, the king of heaven
Thomas Tallis Spem in alium
John Goss Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd
George Frederic Handel Hallelujah Chorus
John Rutter Requiem : Pie Jesu
Ralph Vaughan Williams Hymn: Come down, O love divine
Thomas Tallis O nata lux de lumine
Henry Balfour Gardiner Evening Hymn: Te lucis ante terminum
William Byrd Ave verum corpus
Edward Miller arr. John Rutter Hymn: When I survey the wondrous cross
Charles Villiers Stanford Beati quorum via
Ralph Vaughan Williams Antiphon - Let all the world in every corner sing
William Byrd Iustorum animae
Henry Purcell Come ye sons of art away - Symphony solo & chorus
William Harris Faire is the heaven
Edward Bairstow Psalm 67: God be merciful unto us
Robert Parsons Ave Maria
Louis Bourgeois arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams  & Roy Douglas Hymn: All people that on earth do dwell
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry Jerusalem
John Rutter Requiem: Requiem aeternam
Gustav Holst I vow to thee, my country
John Tavener Song for Athene
W.H. Monk Hymn: Abide with me
Charles Villiers Stanford Magnificat in G
Henry Purcell Thou knowest, Lord
Orlando Gibbons Hosanna to the son of David
C.C. Scholefield arr. John Rutter Hymn: The day thou gavest, Lord is ended
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry Psalm 84: O how amiable are thy dwellings
Ralph Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor: Kyrie
John  Ireland Greater love hath no man
Thomas Tallis If ye love me
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry Hymn: Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Benjamin Britten Jubilate Deo
Orlando Gibbons Hymn: Drop, drop slow tears
Frederick Delius To be sung of a summer night on the water
Robert Philip Goodenough Psalm 150: O praise God in his holiness
Thomas Weelkes When David heard
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry I was glad


 

 
 


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