My soul doth magnify the Lord - Settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) in C major Op 115 [9:07]; Thomas Attwood WALMISLEY (1814-1856) in D minor [7:53]; Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876) in E major [12:54]; Hugh BLAIR (1861-1932) in B minor [11:13]; Charles WOOD (1866-1926) in F major [9:30]; Sir Herbert BREWER (1863-1928) in D major [7:31]
The Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral/John Scott
Christopher Dearnley (organ)
rec. St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 18-20 March 1987
text included

One of the great pleasures when travelling around England is the ability in most Cathedral cities to be able to attend a weekday Evensong. Without fuss, with total professionalism and often with only a very small congregation present some of the glories of English church music will be sung with expertise and understanding, and the equally glorious words of the Book of Common Prayer will be heard. It is hard to imagine anything better calculated to restore a sense of balance after a hard day’s work and I am amazed at how few people seem to take advantage of it.

Apart from the anthem, the choir’s main duty is to sing the two evening canticles – the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. This disc contains six settings of these texts, all intended, not as concert works but, for use as part of this daily pattern of worship. This does not mean that the composers are necessarily self-effacing or the results formulaic but that the composers have had to respond to the very precise requirements put upon them if they are to enter the cycle of canticles in regular use. Possibly it is this discipline that has stimulated composers’ invention in the best settings, and certainly all of these show their composers working at the top of their form and providing exactly what is needed from them in liturgical terms. I do not wish to imply that all of the works here are necessarily great musical masterpieces; they are not. Nonetheless even the least inspired are wonderful examples of sincerity and musical craftsmanship and the best, for me the settings by Walmisley and Wesley, go well beyond that.

Stanford is the only composer here better known for music beyond the realms of church music but it is arguable that he was at his best in his church music. His Great Service in C major may or may not be his best work in that field – the G major and B flat major works are also very special – but it certainly has a considerable impact when performed as well as it is here. The choir sounds suitably large for the music and the building and the notoriously difficult acoustic of the latter has been tamed, adequately if not entirely. The choir appears to be recorded closer and with less reverberation than the organ, but the total effect is imposing even if somewhat wearing after a while for anyone more used to Cathedrals with a shorter echo.

The choir is used to singing settings such as these on virtually a daily basis, so that idiomatic and wholly reliable performances can be taken for granted. Indeed they sing with just the appropriate mixture of fervour and decorum for this music. Christopher Dearnley makes much of the organ parts on an instrument that has all the qualities needed for them. It is interesting to compare these versions with those by other choirs and organists, in the Priory series and on discs from individual cathedrals. In each case I have found greater drama and drive on the present disc. There is some occasional lack of power in the quieter passages, in particular in the solos but this may be more due to the difficulties of recording in this enormous building. Overall these are performances worth hearing. The drama of the Walmisley, the individuality of the Wesley and the grandeur of the Blair and Brewer are all very well conveyed. This disc would be worth having as a supplement to the Priory series of settings of the Evening Canticles, as a sample of the riches of this repertoire, or simply as a fine souvenir of the building. There are interesting notes by Sarah Langdon although her reference to “the mire into which [English church music] had sunk earlier in the nineteenth century” makes me look forward to the day when this particular piece of popular wisdom can be re-examined in the light of actual performances of that music.

John Sheppard

The drama of the Walmisley, the individuality of the Wesley and the grandeur of the Blair and Brewer are all very well conveyed.