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Cantatas for Soprano

 

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Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis 'Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense' (1959) [8:28]
God's grandeur (1957) [4:53]
Give me the wings of faith (1962) [4:41]
Missa brevis Op. 50 (1967) [12:25]
Ite, missa est from Missa de Gloria Op. 82 Solo Organ (1980) [5:26]
What love is this of thine? (1985) [6:31]
The Second Service Op.62 (1971) [10:45]
Crucifixus pro nobis Op. 38 (1961) [19:01]
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge/Stephen Layton
Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Jeremy Cole, Eleanor Kornas (organ)
rec. Trinity College Chapel and Lincoln Cathedral, 2013
HYPERION CDA68039 [72:09]

This is the third anthology of church music by Kenneth Leighton that has come my way. There was a fine Naxos disc from Christopher Robinson and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge in 2004 (review) and Hyperion themselves issued in 2008 an excellent disc made by Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir (review). There’s no overlap between the two Hyperion discs – from Wells and Trinity. By contrast there is quite a bit of commn ground between the St John’s programme and this new one from “just down the road” at Trinity. The 'Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense' Canticles and the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ from the Second Service are common to both, as are Crucifixus pro nobis, Give me the wings of faith and What love is this of thine? However, I think a very good case can be made for investing in both of these Cambridge discs. In the first place Leighton enthusiasts won’t want to miss out on any of the items that appear on only one programme. Secondly, the St John’s choir uses trebles whereas the Trinity ensemble has sopranos on the top line and a mix of male and female altos so one hears a very different choral sound on each of these two discs.

Inside the Hyperion booklet there’s a photograph of Kenneth Leighton in the cassock and surplice that he wore during his time as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral (1937 - 1942). Later in life Leighton acknowledged that this early musical experience had a lasting impact on his development as a composer though Ted Tregear rightly argues in his very perceptive notes that we should not think of Leighton first and foremost as a composer of church music, nor as a conventional composer of religious pieces. I agree with this though, regrettably, it seems to be the case that Leighton’s non-church music is now largely neglected except for a handful of CDs issued by Chandos, Meridian, Dutton, Cameo, Naxos-BMS and Delphian.

There’s some very fine and original music on this new CD. Pride of place, I suppose, must go to his Passiontide cantata, Crucifixus pro nobis. In this four-movement work Leighton sets three poems by the little-known English Catholic poet, Patrick Carey (c1624-1657) – the fourth movement is a setting of Phineas Fletcher’s well –known text, ‘Drop, drop slow tears’. Carey’s verses eschew sentimental religiosity. Instead the reader/listener is confronted with the physical sufferings of Christ and Leighton responds to these words with very intense music. It’s noticeable how much more expansive Stephen Layton is in this piece compared with Christopher Robinson on the Naxos disc: Layton takes 19:01 compared with Robinson’s 15:21. This may be due in part to the larger and more resonant acoustic of Lincoln Cathedral where the organ-accompanied elements in Layton’s programme were recorded. But I’m inclined to think that the timing difference is more about the ways in which the respective conductors think about the music. Both performances are excellent. As a matter of personal taste I prefer the timbre of the voice of James Oxley, who sings the important tenor solo for Robinson, to that of Andrew Kennedy; both tenors invest the music with great feeling. Both choirs do very well too. Layton is daringly slow in ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ but his splendid choir is well able to sustain the lines and they give a very moving account of this movement

The two sets of Canticles come off very well in the Trinity performances. They’re quite contrasting responses to the texts. The set that Leighton wrote for Magdalene College, Oxford was his first venture into setting these texts. The Magnificat is predominantly exuberant and features a virtuoso organ part. The Nunc dimittis is more subdued at first but the tension gradually rises in a most effective way. The 1971 Canticles were written in memory of Brian Runnett, the Organist of Norwich Cathedral who perished in a car crash in 1970 at the age of just 35. Perhaps the memorial aspect of the composition accounts for the more reflective nature of the music as compared with the Magdalene canticles. In particular the doxologies are thoughtful in tone. My ear was caught particularly by the stretches of music in the Magnificat where the vocal lines soar gently over dancing figurations in the organ part.

The Missa brevis was written, I presume, for the Anglican usage since it’s in English and the Gloria is placed last, rather than after the Kyrie, as would be the case in the Roman rite. The choir is unaccompanied and this engenders a feeling of intimacy in most movements, apart from the Hosannas and the Gloria. The Agnus Dei is a strong plea for mercy. This is a very thoughtful Mass setting and Layton and his choir do it very well indeed. It was a shrewd idea to follow this with the organ solo Ite, missa est. This comes from another of Leighton’s Mass settings. It’s an insistent, driving toccata which culminates in a majestic ending. Very well played by Jeremy Cole, it’s a fine foil to the much less flamboyant Mass setting.

The shorter individual pieces include Leighton’s arresting setting for unaccompanied choir of Gerald Manley Hopkins, God's grandeur. The setting of Isaac Watts’ well-known hymn, Give me the wings of faith is very interesting – and very fine. It eschews obvious gestures and instead, as Ted Tregear perceptively comments, the music demonstrates “how long and arduous that path [to heaven] is.” By contrast What love is this of thine? , the latest work on the programme, strikes a very different tone. In terms of sheer beauty of utterance this piece takes the palm among the music on the disc. It’s a wonderfully expressive and richly textured piece for unaccompanied choir and it receives an exemplary performance from the Trinity College singers.

This is an excellent collection of Kenneth Leighton’s music. Without exception the performances are very fine and the programme offers further evidence that the Trinity College Choir is one of the finest of its type. The a cappella pieces were recorded on their home turf in the college chapel; for the bigger pieces requiring organ accompaniment the location moved to Lincoln Cathedral. In both locations engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock have achieved excellent results. Leighton’s is a fine and individual voice in English church music and this disc does his reputation justice.

John Quinn

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

 

 




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