Leonard BERNSTEIN (1919 - 1990)
Chichester Psalms
Marcel GRANDJANY (1891-1975)
Aria in Classic Style
for Harp and Organ, Op.19 [6:22]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
William MATHIAS (1834-1992)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols
(arr. Julius Harrison) [24:08]
Justin Lavender (tenor: Janacek); Léon Charles (organ); Frances Kelly (harp); Cameron Sinclair (percussion)
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 12-14 January, 2008, St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Texts and English translations included
ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE SJCR105-2 [70:41]
These, I fancy, must have been the first recordings that Andrew Nethsingha made with the St. John’s College choir after arriving at the college as Director of Music in autumn 2007. They’ve been ‘in the can’ for quite a while - since before their contract with Chandos came into effect - and I wonder why this interesting programme, which contains some unusual repertoire, has not been issued earlier. It’s good that the college has brought it out under its own imprint.
There’s one slight disappointment - and puzzle. I’m unsure why Andrew Nethsingha has chosen to record A Ceremony of Carols in the SATB arrangement that Julius Harrison made in 1955 at the request of the publishers, Boosey & Hawkes. I can understand why the arrangement was made in order to bring the work within the scope of adult choirs but it never seems to me to work as well as the original trebles-only version. With the adult voices, even when they’re as skilled as here, one loses something of the intimacy and innocence that boys’ voices alone bring to the score. I’m sure the St. John’s trebles would have given a very good account of these carols. Nonetheless, if one wants to hear the work in this version then this performance is a good one. To be fair, recordings of the work in its SATB guise are far less frequent than recordings of the original version, which may explain why the arrangement was chosen here.
Leonard Bernstein conceived his Chichester Psalms for all-male chorus and it’s good to hear it done that way; the accompaniment is provided in the composer’s own reduction for harp, organ and percussion. Andrew Nethsingha leads an excellent performance. The unnamed treble soloist in the second movement does very well. In the third movement, after Léon Charles has given a very good account of the extended organ introduction, the choral section flows beautifully. The melody in this part of the work is one of Bernstein’s finest inspirations and the present performance is very polished as, indeed, is the performance of the entire work.
The remainder of the programme takes us into less well-charted territory. Otčenáš is a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Moravian which Janáček composed in 1901. Originally written for accompaniment by piano and harmonium, the composer revised it for harp and organ, as heard here, in 1906. The music is quite folk-influenced and, to my ears, contains some pre-echoes of the Glagolitic Mass, not least in the often ardent writing for the tenor soloist. The solo role is a demanding one in terms of the tessitura and Justin Lavender does a fine job. Indeed, since the retirement of John Mitchinson I’ve not heard a British tenor capable of doing real justice to the tenor solo part in the Glagolitic Mass and listening to Mr Lavender here makes me wonder if he could be the man. It’s a good piece and a most enterprising choice. I’m delighted that it’s been included here.
This enterprise extends to the two instrumental items. I’ve heard William Mathias’s short, three-movement Improvisations for solo harp before. How fitting that a Welsh composer should create such an interesting and effective work for the harp. I love the rippling first movement and the pithy little dance with which the suite concludes. In between comes a more elusive and inward looking slow movement which, as Jeremy Summerly rightly observes, is the heart of the work. Frances Kelly makes an excellent job of this work. The music - and name - of Marcel Grandjany was completely new to me. A Frenchman, who lived in the USA from 1926 onwards, teaching at the Juilliard School from 1938 until his death, Jeremy Summerly tells us that he established an international reputation as a harp virtuoso. From a little internet research it seems that, unsurprisingly, most of his compositions were for his own instrument. However, I’ve been unable to establish when the Aria in Classic Style was composed. Jeremy Summerly aptly describes the work, which also exists in a version for harp and orchestra, as a “neo-Baroque gem”. He also comments that the work is underpinned by the spirit of Bach. It’s a winning little piece, which I enjoyed very much. The combination of harp and organ works well, certainly on disc, not least because the organ part is quite subdued.
Everything about this disc is good. The repertoire is interesting and enterprising; the performance standards are consistently high; the recorded sound is very good; and the booklet notes by Jeremy Summerly are exemplary. This is a most welcome release.
John Quinn
A most welcome release. Everything about this disc is good. 

Discography & review index: Britten's Ceremony of carols