Choral Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Master Tallis’s Testament [7.00] Te Deum (Collegium Regale) [9.31]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585) Sancte Deus [6.43]
Heathcote STATHAM (1889-1973) Preces [1.34] Responses [6.27]
Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Chant for Psalm 91 [5.52]
Michael PETERSON (1924-2006) Chant for Psalm 131 [2.11]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) Magnificat [8.57]; Nunc Dimittis [4.50] ‘The Tewkesbury Service’
Hymn ‘The Day thou gavest’ [3.28]
Readings from Isaiah Chapter 6 [1.52]; Corinthians Chapter 1 [2.45]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Valiant for Truth [5.39]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Organ Voluntary: Toccata in B flat minor [4.10]
The Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury/Benjamin Nicholas
Carleton Etherington (organ)
rec. 26 June-5 July 2006, Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD 34019 [74.37]

Listening to this disc dating from 2006 but only recently presented for review has been a trip down memory lane. I will indulge myself - and perhaps you - in thoughts of happier times when the choir school at the Abbey in Tewkesbury was a flourishing concern. Let me explain.

It was back in 1974 that a prep school - a choir school no less - was established in a beautiful house just down the road from the abbey town of Tewkesbury to sing Evensong four times a week. The founder was Miles Amherst who had been a singer in various places over the years. I saw an advert for singers in the Church Times in the spring of 1975. I went from London to meet Miles and to sing counter-tenor for him. I didn’t work at the school but taught a few miles away and sang three times a week for four years, under the direction of the abbey organist and choirmaster, Michael Peterson.

The men of the choir joined to form a successful group and we called ourselves ‘The Tallismen’. We sang together for eight years. A memory of singing the music of Tallis and Howells particularly stands out for me. It’s good that both composers feature on this CD along with a wonderful psalm chant by Michael Peterson himself. He would surely have approved of the repertoire here but whether he would have liked the rather lumpy psalm singing I’m not so sure. His chant for Psalm 131 begins in the minor and evolves effortlessly into the major. It suits the words for ‘Lord I am not highminded/I have no proud looks”. Indeed, Michael himself was such a modest gentleman of the old school and one admired by all.

It was quite sudden however, it seemed so anyway, that in 2006 the school closed. The moment came for the very last Evensong which is here recreated. The present recording evokes a special memory of the school, its aims, achievements and its singers. At the invitation of the headmaster of Dean Close School Cheltenham, the boys from Tewkesbury simply moved venue. They continued to sing Evensong but under the inspired direction of Benjamin Nicholas, Director of Choral Music and of Carleton Etherington also Director of Music at Tewkesbury Abbey. Etherington contributes two contrasting organ solos: the quasi-Renaissance ‘Master Tallis’s Testament’ by Howells and the brilliant Toccata by Louis Vierne. Incidentally there are two organs in the Abbey: the Milton is a 17th Century chamber instrument used sometimes for Renaissance anthems and services. In addition there is the magnificent Grove organ, restored in 1997 as featured here.

As the booklet-writer tells us, Miles Amherst had always wanted a ‘Tewkesbury Service’ from Herbert Howells, a Gloucester man through and through. The aged composer never did get around to it; instead Amherst had Gabriel Jackson’s Canticles. These are not merely a substitute but a sensitive and expressive response to the oh-so-familiar texts. They at times impart a Howellsian atmosphere in harmony and melody. There is even a quote from the great man’s Gloucester Service. This was just one of several commissions and first performances, including one of my own, which the choir gave during its thirty or so years. I always felt that the repertoire was extraordinary wide and on this CD we range from Tudor music to the new via a little known figure like Heathcote Statham. I think that it’s only his Preces, Responses and Lord’s Prayer settings that get an airing now. Apart from church music and much stuff for the organ there are, I’m told, some interesting orchestral works which are probably ripe for revival.

The VW anthem ‘Valiant for Truth’ is a typically challenging choice as an anthem. Written when the composer was deep into John Bunyan it is, I suppose a chipping from the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ workshop. It is rather solemn and is beautifully and affectingly performed.

The Te Deum does not normally feature in an Evensong service but it’s good to hear it in such a committed performance. It is an exceptionally fine work conceived by Howells on an almost symphonic scale for King’s College Cambridge.

The readings and prayers (including one for music) are clearly recorded. The two very well chosen passages are some of the finest and best known in the entire Bible.

The standard of the choir has much improved too over the years. This is their third CD for Delphian. In fact I reviewed their Weelkes disc earlier this year (DCD34070). It would be churlish of me to criticize it as it no longer exists in quite this form. The sound of the boys, which does not always appeal to me is however clear and the men are warm of tone and well balanced. I will say however that I am glad that all texts have been included in the extremely useful booklet. There is also an attractive photograph of the Norman abbey’s glorious interior.

Gary Higginson

see also review by John Quinn

Beautifully and affectingly performed