Choral Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Master Tallis’s Testament* [7:00]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Sancte Deus [6:43]
Heathcote STATHAM (1889-1973) Preces [1:34]
Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Chant: Psalm 91 [5:52]
Michael PETERSON (1924-2006) Chant: Psalm 131 [2:11]
First Lesson (Isaiah 6 1-8) [1:52]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) Magnificat (Tewkesbury Service) [8:57]
Second Reading (1 Corinthians 13) [2:45]
Gabriel JACKSON Nunc Dimittis (Tewkesbury Service) [4:50]
Creed [0:57]
Heathcote STATHAM Responses and Collects [6:27]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Valiant-for-Truth [5:39]
Prayers and Blessing [2:38]
Hymn: The day thou gavest (St. Clement, Descant: John Scott (b. 1956) [3:28]
Herbert HOWELLS Te Deum (Collegium Regale) [9:31]
Louis VIÈRNE (1870-1937) Toccata in B minor* [4:10]
The Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury/Benjamin Nicholas
*Carleton Etherington (organ)
rec. Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, England, 26 June and 5 July 2006. DDD
English texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34019 [74:37]

It’s sometimes said of a disc that it “marks the end of an era”. Well in this case that statement is more than usually accurate. For thirty-two years the choir of The Abbey School, Tewkesbury, sang Choral Evensong in the town’s magnificent abbey church on most weekday evenings during term time. Sadly, in 2006 the school was obliged to shut its doors. So this disc, containing a complete Evensong, including the spoken parts of the service, was recorded as a kind of valedictory offering. It was originally intended as a limited edition disc for sale in the Abbey shop and was previously issued with the catalogue number DCD34713. However, the recording has sold successfully and it is now being reissued for reasons that I’ll mention at the end of this review.

The music has been shrewdly chosen not just to show to best advantage the choir - and the imposing Milton organ of Tewkesbury Abbey - but also to reflect the heritage of the Abbey church and its environs. So Gloucestershire composers, in the shape of Howells and Vaughan Williams, are represented; one of the psalm chants is by the late Michael Peterson, the first Director of Music at the Abbey School; and, perhaps most significantly of all, the canticles are sung to a recent setting by Gabriel Jackson, here receiving its first recording. This was one of several sets of canticles expressly written for the choir.

The choir sings very well and generally I applaud the direction of Ben Nicholas. One area in which I do take issue with him, however, is in the chanting of the psalms. Both psalms seem to me to be taken very steadily. In the case of Psalm 131 this is not inappropriate both for the text and the style of the chant and, in any event, the psalm is only four verses long. However, Psalm 91 has sixteen verses and Nicholas’s spacious treatment of it is rather too much of a good thing, I find. He seems a bit too ready to indulge expressive points at the expense of flow and as a result the delivery of the psalm sounds laboured.

Elsewhere, however, his direction is much more assured. The lovely Tallis introit is well pointed and here the music does indeed flow. He also does the Jackson canticles very convincingly. I hadn’t heard this setting before but I found it very impressive. In the booklet notes it’s suggested that this set of canticles represents, in some ways, a homage to Herbert Howells. In the Magnificat that’s particularly apparent in, say, the long, melismatic opening for trebles alone, accompanied by a light, bubbling organ part. Later there’s an enviable tenor line at “He hath filled the hungry” and I also liked very much the gentle radiance in the music at “He remembering his mercy”. The exciting doxology is underpinned by a toccata-like organ accompaniment and the setting rises to a majestic “as it was in the beginning” of which I’m sure Howells himself would have approved. The Nunc Dimittis is prayerful, beginning with tenors and basses only. The whole choir joins in at “To be a light” with some luminous harmonies that evoke Howells. The music for the doxology differs from that of the Magnificat - the music used at this point in the Magnificat would have been unsuitable. Here Jackson gives us a more flowing passage that suits the canticle ideally. This is a fine set of canticles, which I hope will be taken up widely. Their debut recording is an auspicious one.

Vaughan Williams’s visionary anthem is well done. The music can seem episodic but Nicholas makes it a seamless whole. It’s not common practice to sing the Te Deum at Evensong, except on festal occasions but I’m certainly not going to quibble when the chosen setting is one of the finest in all Anglican music. And anyway, I think the occasion of this recording warrants its inclusion. It’s performed here with relish and commitment. At the end of the piece Howells’s magisterial music for the words “Let me never be confounded”, is sung with wonderful confidence. Was this, I wonder, something of a statement of future intent?

I’ve mentioned the singers and conductor but have done scant justice to the organ playing of Carleton Etherington, the Abbey organist. In a word it’s splendid. He accompanies with finesse and imagination - there are some lovely, albeit discreet touches in the psalms. He plays the opening Howells voluntary quite beautifully and he gives an exuberant account of Vièrne’s toccata at the end - but, enjoyable though that is, one regrets that the otherwise English programme could not have been completed by an English organ work at the very end.

This is a splendid recreation of the timeless service of Evensong in one of this country’s very finest non-Cathedral churches - and, frankly a church that puts several cathedrals in the shade. The music is beautifully performed by a well-trained and committed choir. The sound has been improved somewhat from the original CD. First time round it was very good but, to my ears, Paul Baxter has now added an extra bit of warmth and, at the same time, has achieved even more clarity. The organ comes across magnificently and the wonderfully resonant acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey is expertly captured. The notes are good and the English texts are provided. There’s one presentational change from the original issue that must be mentioned. Inside the disc we now get a superb colour photograph of the nave of Tewkesbury Abbey, looking forwards from the back; the image does full justice to this magnificent building.

When first issued, this recording marked the close of a chapter in the musical life of Tewkesbury Abbey. However, since then a new, and so far very successful chapter has begun. After the school’s closure had been announced another local independent school, Dean Close School, Cheltenham, offered places which most of the choristers were able to take up and, now renamed the Schola Cantorum, the choir continues the regular rhythm of the church’s year, singing Evensong several nights each week during term time. That’s a cause for gratitude and celebration. The Schola Cantorum has forged a successful relationship with Delphian, for whom they’ve made several recordings over the last three years or so. The success of the relationship has encouraged Delphian to reissue this disc, with a new catalogue number, as part of their main catalogue. I’m glad they’ve done that for, leaving aside any questions of commemoration, this CD is a splendid representation on disc of the liturgy of Evensong.

John Quinn