Christmas with St John’s
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Joseph Wicks (organ)
rec. Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, 7-10 January 2016

After their debut disc with Signum, St John’s have embraced the inevitable and put out a disc of Christmas music. And why not? If there is one thing Cambridge choirs do well, it’s Christmas, and why should their neighbours at King’s get all the credit? St John’s choral tradition is every bit as impressive, and they’re on great form at present under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, in fact probably even slightly ahead of Cleobury’s King’s choir (by a whisker).

Their disc contains traditional, more recent and new carols. The traditionals are all safe bankers and they all work well. “The Holly and the Ivy” and “I Saw Three Ships” bounce along with folkish good humour. Simon Preston’s “I Saw Three Ships” hits the spot very well, as does the ever-dependable Charles Wood version of “Ding! Dong! Merrily.” Mark Blatchly’s version of “Silent Night” is quite special, however, and absolutely delightful to my ears. A treble soloist takes the first verse over a beautifully consonant harmony, and the whole choir follows suit afterwards. Very simple but very effective, this is the finest contemporary arrangement of this carol that I’ve heard in many years.

Among the more recent classics, everyone has great fun with “Sir Christèmas” (particularly the altos, it would seem), and the less familiar versions of “I Wonder as I Wander” and “O Little Town” are very well sung. Ord’s “Adam Lay Ybounden” is taken fairly slowly but this allows the music plenty of space to breathe, which is satisfying. Ledger’s “Spotless Rose” contrasts the boys and men very effectively and Warlock’s “As Dew in Aprylle” is as bright as a new penny. The ever-popular “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” sounds wonderful, Nethsingha pulling the beat around ever so slightly in the fourth verse, and Gardner’s toe-tapping “Dancing Day” is a marvellous, slightly unconventional way to end this disc, with the tambourine and snare drum offsetting the organ to give necessary levity.

It’s the most contemporary carols that set the disc apart, however, and which will distinguish it from regular stocking fodder. Chilcott’s “Shepherd’s Carol” has become one of his most popular works since it was first performed, up the road, at the King’s Christmas Eve service in 2000. It sounds marvellous here, full not just of beauty but of spiritual power and the hope of the season. McDowall’s “O Oriens” is marvellously evocative, revelling in the acoustic of the chapel as well as the tightness of the choral blend, and Dormi Jesu is gentle and unassuming, as befits its nature as a crib song. I liked Finnisy’s “John the Baptist,” though its Middle Eastern inflections need a little more effort from the listener, and its content isn’t particularly Christmassy. Peter Marchbank’s “People Look East” is quirky and is given a reading of great energy, as is Anthony Milner’s “Out of Your Sleep Arise” with its walking organ part. My favourite, however, was William Whitehead’s take on “Joys Seven,” a mix of carol and quirky improvisation, reminding me of a negro spiritual. His seven beats to a bar structure is brilliantly effective, and it also shows off the organ to very great effect.

As if the music weren’t enough, the booklet also contains excellent notes about the carols and the sung texts. Go for it, then! Give this to the same person to whom you gave the recent King’s release. Its programming makes it appealing but also a little unusual, which is the textbook definition of a great Christmas gift. It helps that it also showcases a choir and its director who are currently in very fine fettle indeed.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

The Shepherd’s Carol [3.40]
The Holly and the Ivy (arr. Henry Walford Davies) [2.54]
Sir Christèmas [1.33]
O Oriens [4.35]
Boris ORD
Adam Lay Ybounden [1.19]
A Spotless Rose [2.00]
The Seven Joys of Mary [4.45]
Dormi Jesu [4.56]
Creator of the Stars of Night (arr. John Scott) [3.41]
I Wonder as I Wander [1.46]
Henry Walford DAVIES
O Little Town of Bethlehem [4.49]
I Saw Three Ships (arr. Simon Preston) [2.00]
Three Kings (arr. Ivor Atkins) [2.40]
Ding Dong! Merrily on High (arr. Charles Wood) [2.03]
As Dew in Aprylle [1.57]
Michael Finnissy
John the Baptist [3.26]
Mary’s Magnificat [3.24]
People, look East (arr. Peter Marchbank) [3.18]
Silent Night (arr. Mark Blatchly) [3.19]
Anthony MILNER
Out of Your Sleep Arise [2.43]
Elizabeth POSTON
Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree [3.34]
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day [2.23]
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