This disc brings together performances of some serenely beautiful
choral music directed by the two men who, between them, established
this Cambridge collegiate choir as one of the finest choirs
not just in that city but in England. George Guest (1924-2002)
was Director of Music at the college from 1951 to 1991 and it
was he who restored the choir after the Second World War, raising
it to the front rank in terms of standards and establishing
it firmly as a choir that regularly broadcast and made recordings.
His immediate successor was Christopher Robinson, who directed
the choir until 2003. Robinson undoubtedly built on Guest’s
very firm foundations and enhanced the choir’s reputation still
It’s fitting that the disc includes music by Herbert Howells
for he had a strong connection with the college; during the
war he deputised for the college’s organist, Robin Orr (Guest’s
predecessor), who was away on active service. Among his many
sets of Evening Canticles, written for a variety of Anglican
choirs, is his 1957 set for St. John’s, recorded here. The amusing
story of how they came to be written for the college almost
by accident is related in the notes accompanying this disc.
The Canticles for St John’s aren’t on quite the same exalted
level as some of the more famous settings by Howells – I’m thinking,
for example, of the Gloucester Service or – mention it softly
in this context – the ‘Collegium Regale’ set, written for St.
John’s rivals at King’s College. However, they’re still fine
pieces, responsive, as Howells always was, to the texts and
to the place for which they were composed. George Guest and
his choir do them very well and with the understanding that
comes from deep acquaintance with the music.
They also give a lovely account of Howells’ sublime Requiem
for unaccompanied choir. This dates from 1936 and he re-cycled
quite a bit of the music two years later into his supreme masterpiece,
Hymnus Paradisi. The music is surpassingly beautiful
and the writing displays a tremendous affinity with and understanding
of the human voice. Guest’s performance is excellent. The only
small reservation I’d have is that the solo treble in the setting
of Psalm 23, the second of the work’s six movements, sounds
a little overwhelmed by the music. My own preference is for
a mixed adult choir, including a soprano soloist, in this music
but perhaps that’s because I came to know it through the Corydon
Singers’ wonderful 1983 version for Hyperion (CDA66076), which
was the work’s first recording, I believe. (There’s also a fine,
later recording by St John’s under Christopher Robinson (8.554659),
which uses boy’s voices). But the reservation I’ve just voiced
is a fairly minor one. Guest and his singers do full justice
to the work and their way with it will give enormous satisfaction
to anyone buying this disc.
That’s also true of Christopher Robinson’s splendid account
of Duruflé’s luminous Requiem. Here, once again, the choir acquits
itself very well indeed and a special word of praise is due
to Iain Farrington, who plays the crucial organ part magnificently.
Kathryn Turpin sings the solo ‘Pie Jesu’ very expressively and
in this she’s partnered to excellent effect not only by Iain
Farrington but also by cellist John Todd. The sound that the
choir makes is an unmistakeably English one but even though
the music is French I don’t think that matters in the slightest.
What matters is the quality of the singing and that’s very high.
Duruflé’s four exquisite little motets make a most appropriate
pairing since they, like the Requiem, are suffused with the
influence of plainchant. The motets are given accomplished performances.
Regis give no details of when these recordings were made which
is a bit naughty. It’s also a little frustrating as one would
like to know when in their times at St John’s – and therefore
at what stage in their respective development of the choir -
George Guest and Christopher Robinson made these recordings.
My guess is that the Guest performances date from the second
half of the 1980s and the Robinson performances are from the
1990s. I presume the recordings were made in the chapel at St.
John’s. In all cases the sound quality is good. No texts or
translations are supplied.
This generously filled disc contains beautifully crafted, inspired
music from start to finish and the performances are immaculate,
making this a most desirable issue.