Voices from Heaven - Choral Music from St John’s College, Cambridge
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Quatre Motets sur thèmes grégoriens [9:03]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense)* [8:49]
Kathryn Turpin (mezzo); William Clements (baritone); John Todd (cello)
Iain Farrington and *Alexander Martin (organ)
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson/*George Guest.
rec. dates and venues not specified
REGIS RRC1341 [78:54]
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 further.
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.
Beautifully crafted, inspired music in immaculate performances.