Ben Nicholas has been Director of the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum since 2006 and during his time with them heís made the choir into a very good one, as evidenced by the series of very good recordings that theyíve made together for Delphian (review
). Now heís leaving Tewkesbury as his post as Director of Music at Merton College, Oxford becomes full time.
For his valedictory recording heís chosen a programme of music by John Rutter. Some might think that the world isnít exactly short of Rutter recordings but I think itís a pretty fair choice because, in all probability, the Tewkesbury choir will have sung a reasonable amount of Rutterís music over the last few years. His attractive music is enjoyable to hear and to sing and so has become a staple of the repertoire of most church choirs. Here Nicholas blends some of Rutterís best known pieces with some slightly less familiar fare.
Inevitably Ė and rightly - there are some Christmas pieces. Dormi, Jesu
was written for Kingís College, Cambridge, I believe. Itís one of Rutterís best-known carols, which is saying something, and deservedly so. Even more appealing is one of my own favourites among Rutterís seasonal offerings, There is a flower
. This lovely piece features Tewkesburyís star treble, Laurence Kilsby Ė thatís a voice Ben Nicholas will be sorry to leave behind, I bet Ė and he does the evocative solos at the start and end of the piece with disarming purity of tone. He can also be heard in The Gift of Charity
, a piece which I suspect may be new to disc. The text is a versification by one Selwyn Image (1849-1930) of the famous passage from St. Paulís Epistle to the Corinthians. Rutter sets the text strophically and with a certain (deliberate?) naivety.
Thereís nothing naÔve about Hymn to the Creator of Light
. Iíve admired this piece ever since I had the good fortune to be present at its first performance. That was at an Evensong during the 1992 Three Choirs Festival when the Herbert Howells memorial window was dedicated. The texts which Rutter chose are wonderful and complement each other beautifully. His music is inspired, evoking light very successfully. Unfortunately I have two reservations about this recorded performance. Firstly, I think Ben Nicholas takes the music too slowly. Stephen Layton, conducting Polyphony for Hyperion (CDA66947), adopts a more fluent tempo which is greatly to the benefit of the music; he takes 6:29, over one minute less than Nicholas. Secondly, itís very rare that I find any fault with the recorded sound on a Delphian disc but here I think the balance has been misjudged. The choir is simply too closely recorded to convey the vital air of mystery and distance that this particular piece requires. In fact, it was this aspect rather than the speed that made me dig out the Layton disc for comparison. Hyperion donít say where their recording was made but not only is Laytonís choir slightly further away from the microphones, it seems, but also the second choir (Rutter divides his singers into two choirs) seems to be set further back and that produces a lovely perspective, especially in the second half of the piece, from the point where Rutter introduces a slow chorale theme - from 4:08 in the Delphian performance. Despite those caveats Iím delighted to see this fine piece included in the p
Also very worthy of inclusion is Lord, thou hast been our refuge
. This is an extended setting of words from Psalm 90. The choral writing is powerful and in addition to an organ Rutter uses an arresting solo trumpet to accompany the singers. The trumpet part, here played excellently by Gavin Wells, adds drama and a distinctive extra strand to the musical texture. The performance is very good indeed.
Among more recent pieces, in addition to The Gift of Charity
, we find This is the day
, the piece Rutter wrote for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Itís a nice piece and if it doesnít break any new ground perhaps thatís understandable given the occasion for which it was designed. The Tewkesbury performance is a good one. Thereís also Ave Maria
, a piece I donít think Iíve heard before. This is a pleasing composition which flows along very persuasively even though the time signature is an irregular one Ė the piece is in 5/8 time.
From its title you might think that As the bridegroom to his chosen
is another wedding piece but I donít think it is. Itís an attractive offering with one of those typical Rutter tunes that sound so easy to write, except that Iím sure theyíre not. I like this piece very much but I fear that Ben Nicholas takes it too slowly. I have a recording conducted by Rutter himself which is taken at a much more flowing tempo (COLCD 112). Rutter despatches the piece in 3:22 without sounding at all perfunctory and itís noticeable that Stephen Layton on another Rutter disc he made for Hyperion (CDA67259) adopts a tempo thatís virtually identical to the composerís. Iím afraid that in taking 4:11 Nicholas makes the music seem somewhat earthbound.
Still, despite one or two reservations thereís much to enjoy here in a varied and enjoyable programme. The generally very good singing by the choir is testament to the excellent work that Ben Nicholas has done at Tewkesbury over the last six years. I donít know who will follow him as director of the choir but itís to be hoped that whoever is chosen will build on the firm foundations that Ben Nicholas has established. I should also say that, apart from the one reservation detailed above, the recording is up to Delphianís usual very high standard as is the booklet.