This disc was recorded during a year-long celebration of the consecration of Truro Cathedral and the establishment of its Choir in 1887.
There are several reasons to commend this disc but first among them must be the sheer enterprise of the programme planning. Given the opportunity to mark such an anniversary it’s a fair bet that many choirs would have sung a programme of some of the great standards of the liturgical repertoire - we can all name them - which had been popular staples of the choir’s repertoire over the years. There might have been a nod to the present day with a couple of late twentieth-century pieces. They do things rather differently in Truro, praise be! Look at the track-listing. Every single piece is by a living composer and eight of the thirteen items are receiving their first recording. Furthermore, all the music here, with one exception, has been written for the Truro choir over the last few years. The sole exception is the work by Francis Pott but that more than merits its inclusion for reasons to which we’ll come presently. So three cheers for Cornish enterprise.
I’ve heard a handful of the pieces before. Church Music by Julian Philips was commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee project Choirbook for the Queen and, along with all the other commissioned pieces in that collection was recorded by the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury on a disc I reviewed last year: Truro Cathedral Choir gave the broadcast première of the Philips’ piece on BBC Radio 3. It’s a setting of lines by George Herbert and I have to say that it didn’t sound to me much like music written for the church: I wondered if Philips was unaccustomed to the métier. On the other hand, his I sing of a maiden, an unaccompanied setting, does have an ecclesiastical feel. This slow, hushed piece, which I liked a lot, makes use of a solo treble and a trio of trebles as well as the main choir and the performance is excellent.
I’ve also heard James MacMillan’s lovely Ave maris stella before. Though it was written for the Truro choir they were pipped to a first recording by Westminster Cathedral Choir (review). However, it’s great to hear the choir for which it was commissioned singing it, and all the more so when it’s so beautifully done. The third piece that I’ve heard before is the one to which I referred earlier when I said that one piece in this programme wasn’t written for the Truro choir. That’s Lament by Francis Pott, which I first encountered a couple of years ago on a very fine disc devoted entirely to his choral music (review). This beautiful, sincere piece for unaccompanied choir was inspired by the death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, one of the most prominent casualties of the British military campaign in Afghanistan. It’s a deeply felt setting of a short poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962). Francis Pott later discovered that, as a boy, Olaf Schmid had been Head Chorister at Truro Cathedral. How fitting, therefore, that the piece should be included here, perhaps as the choir’s tribute to one of their own. If so, then this dedicated and expertly controlled performance is indeed a worthy tribute.
Russell Pascoe wrote his Missa Brevis for male voices and organ - though a version for four-part choir also exists. I’m afraid it didn’t leave a strong impression on me. I liked much more his set of Evening Canticles. The Magnificat is, in his words, ‘full of nervous energy and sprightly rhythms’. Pascoe has sought to convey the excitement of Mary at the thought of becoming the Mother of God and that, to me, seems a very good idea. By contrast, the Nunc dimittis ‘is more measured, travelling from darkness to light in a sustained sweep.’ This is also imaginative music which culminates in an expansive and impressive doxology.
A number of the pieces on the programme were written for the cathedral’s annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols - Truro’s proud boast is that this service originated with them, as long ago as 1880, and not at King’s College, Cambridge. Among these pieces is Graham Fitkin’s The Christmas Truce. Most unusually Fitkin had the idea of setting a poem about the celebrated occasion in 1914 when British and German soldiers came out of their trenches on Christmas Day and played impromptu games of football in no-man’s land. Fitkin’s unaccompanied setting is mostly spare in texture and is rather poignant. I also liked Becky McGlade’s setting of In the bleak midwinter. It’s a simple, direct and rather beautiful a cappella piece which has, as it says in the booklet, ‘an unassuming sincerity’. Paul Drayton’s Christmas piece, The World’s Desire, which uses words by G.K. Chesterton, is appealing. David Bednall’s Noe, noe rounds off the programme in rousing style. He aimed to show off the cathedral’s Father Willis organ and he certainly achieves that: indeed, once or twice the choir plays second fiddle to the mighty organ. Bednall’s music is mainly full of vitality though there’s an attractive quiet middle section.
Throughout this testing programme the Truro choir sings extremely well, whether in athletic music or in slower pieces that require control of line. Christopher Gray has clearly trained them extremely well. The cathedral organ is a mighty beast when let off the leash but also capable of refined sonorities. Luke Bond plays it with panache or sensitivity, according to need, and the instrument - and also the choir - have been recorded clearly and excitingly by producer/engineer, Gary Cole. There are good notes in the booklet, including several contributions by the composers, writing about their own pieces.
It seems clear from this disc that the musical ministry of Truro Cathedral is in robust health. This is much more than a celebratory disc; it’s also a fine showcase of the sort of quality church music that’s currently being written in the UK.