One thing have I desired
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Ecce beatam lucem [6 :33]
The Three Kings [4 :53]
I will lift up mine eyes [6:32]
Jackson HILL (b. 1941)
In mystery veiled [4:02]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
One thing have I desired [5:24]
Coventry Antiphon [4 :33]
C. Hubert H. PARRY (1848-1918)
I know my soul hath power [2:13]
Never weather-beaten sail [3 :23]
William H. HARRIS (1883-1973)
Behold, the tabernacle of God [3:02]
Bring us, O Lord God [3:49]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Magnificat for double choir, Op. 164 [12:43]
John GARDNER (b 1917)
We have a strong city [3:18]
Choir of Exeter College, Oxford/Alistair Reid, with Richard Moore and Joshua Hales (organ)
rec. Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, U.K., 24-26 June, 19 October 2009
REGENT REGCD332 [63:33]

This most enjoyable collection was recorded in 2009, the 150th anniversary of the consecration of George Gilbert Scott’s chapel at Exeter College, Oxford. It is conducted by Alistair Reid, Senior Organ Scholar at Exeter College. Apart from a list of members, numbering some twenty-eight singers, there is no information about the choir itself, but a photograph shows them to be very young.

I had never heard Howells’ One thing have I desired before. A setting of four verses from Psalm 27, it presents Howells at his most perfumed, the highly charged harmonies perhaps more than the text requires or can stand. That said, the composer’s admirers, myself included, will have no doubts about it. It must be fearsomely difficult to sing all those chords in tune!

The young-sounding voices of Exeter College are set a real challenge in the two pieces from Parry’s glorious Songs of Farewell, especially when it comes to lines such as “I know myself a Man, which is a proud and yet a wretched thing”. A stray B flat creeps in where it shouldn’t just before the end of I know my soul hath power, but these are satisfying performances nonetheless, even if they sound just a little like work in progress when set beside the superbly prepared and executed performances from the choir of Trinity College Cambridge and Richard Marlow, first released on Conifer in 1967.

After the lovely performance of Harris’s tranquil, organ-accompanied anthem, Behold the tabernacle of God, Stanford’s Op. 164 Magnificat comes as complete contrast. Unaccompanied, this exuberant, joyful work would tax the endurance of any choir. Certain passages might almost have been written in direct homage to the double choir writing of J. S. Bach, and these passages of rapid figuration could be more crisply delivered than they are here. And though the performance as a whole is a convincing one, there is a slight tendency to rawness in the singing when the going gets tough.

Jonathan Dove is one of those composers whose music is both approachable and recognisably modern. His Ecce beatam lucem is beautifully written for choir and organ, the textures perfectly complementing each other. The music is suffused with light and energy, a fine representation of the wonders of creation as explored in the words. I can think of no higher praise than to say that as soon as one has heard it one wants to hear it again. Less convincing, to my mind, is The Three Kings, an unaccompanied setting of a poem by, of all people, Dorothy L. Sayers, and composed for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in 2000. There is a wide range of mood in the piece, from the fragile opening to the exuberant passage just before the final section. Try as I might though, I don’t feel that the composer’s heart was in it. The performance is a fine one, though again one has the feeling that a little more experience would help security in the trickier passages, just as it might have rendered more convincing the rather dutiful arpeggios that occur at two points in Ecce beatam lucem.

Barely a hint of insecurity betrays the youth of the singers in a convincing performance of Howells’ Coventry Antiphon, written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, to a few carefully chosen lines from Isaiah and Haggai. This superb and moving short work could have come from the pen of no other composer. Holst’s Nunc dimittis, for double choir, finds the composer in surprisingly forceful mood, especially the closing Gloria Patri. John Gardner is characteristically boisterous in We have a strong city.

The finest of the three pieces by Jonathan Dove is probably I will lift up mine eyes, commissioned for the chapel’s 150th anniversary in 2009. Whilst it is not always obvious what it was in these particular words that prompted this particular music, there can be no doubt that the combination of striking, held chords, both in the choral and organ parts, with canonic writing, results in a piece which is mightily impressive and extremely beautiful. This listener did not find the closing chord as harmonically ambiguous as does Alistair Reid, writing in the notes, but his view that it represents in musical terms the notion of the eternity of God’s promises is a convincing one, and the device would seem to be more appropriate here than at the even more inconclusive close of Ecce beatam lucem. Jackson Hill’s piece is less challenging musically and with a less powerful sense of the composer’s own musical personality. It is calm and tranquil, though the element of mystery contained in the words has perhaps not fully found its way into the music. It is a lovely piece, nonetheless, beautifully written for choir and organ, and I will return to it with pleasure. The recital ends with another fine Harris anthem for double choir which closes in tranquillity with an Amen whose final chord is nonetheless, rather surprising.

It’s a cruel world, and judging this choir against the finest, one or two weaknesses can be noted. There are fleeting moments, usually barely more than a suspicion, that the group is approaching the limit of its technical capacity. Poise is occasionally lacking, and sometimes confidence too, particularly in the men’s sections when singing alone. One should not make very much of this, however, as excellent tuning can be set against it, as may the attractive overall sound and skilful balancing, not to mention the fervent advocacy of a fine and challenging programme. The choir is caught in a natural acoustic, and the playing of the two organists, Richard Moore and Joshua Hales, is exemplary. Collectors interested in the ever-evolving British choral tradition should not hesitate.

William Hedley