Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012)
I Love the Lord [6.02]
Nunc Dimittis [5.12]
Toccata for Organ and Tape [5.27]
Come Holy Ghost [7.27]
Praise ye the Lord [4.08]
Missa Brevis: Kyrie [2.48]
Missa Brevis: Gloria [3.08]
Missa Brevis: Sanctus & Benedictus [2.57]
Missa Brevis: Agnus Dei [2.58]
The Royal Banners Forward Go [3.49]
Laus Deo [4.07]
The Annunciation [4.28]
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Edward Picton-Turbervill (organ)
Andrew Nethsingha (director)
rec. St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 13-17 July 2015
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD456 [60:24]
This recording marks the beginning of a partnership between Signum and the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge (previously the choir had been with Chandos). They've even developed their own distinctive logo for the CD cover. Choosing to showcase the work of Jonathan Harvey for their first project together says a lot about Andrew Nethsingha's commitment to new and contemporary music. How easy it would have been to churn out a collection of Victorian or Edwardian anthems. Instead, Nethsingha and his choir give us an exploration of Harvey's church music that shows off the multifarious brilliance of both the composer and the choir, and it helps for symmetry’s sake that Harvey was himself an undergraduate at the college. He is clearly an important composer for Nethsingha, who writes movingly about him in the booklet essay. This was a passion project for him, and you can tell in the quality of the performances.
Right from the start you know where you are: in St John's’ spacious yet welcoming acoustic. It's captured with remarkable distinction by the Signum engineers, and anyone who knows the building will feel right at home. The opening to-and-froing of I Love the Lord shows off both the acoustic and their antiphonal arrangement very effectively, and the choir's meditative way with the music is most appealing. The Magnificat contains both ethereal harmonies and amusical vocalises which almost yelp out of the speakers, together with an ethereal treble line that seems to hang suspended in mid-air. The accompanying Nunc Dimittis is full of marvellous theatrical effects, such as the choir leaving their stalls and spreading out around the chapel, representing the bestowing of light onto the elderly Simeon. It's theatrical, but it's marvellous. Similarly theatrical is Harvey's take on Come Holy Ghost, basically a set of variations on the ancient Veni Creator Spiritus theme, but spread out and magnified in a breathtaking manner, with lines that are clear yet also effortlessly blended. Praise ye the Lord is every bit as architectural, though in a very different way.
I loved the Missa Brevis, which packs an enormous amount of musical colour and daring invention into a short space of time. The bell-like sororities of the end of the Agnus Dei are particularly winning, and there is a similar directness to The Royal Banners Forward Go, which culminates in an ethereal treble solo which fits with the mysticism of the text. The Annunciation is a beautiful way to end the disc, a deeply meditative text which drew some spine-tingling music from the composer, brought to life with spellbinding clarity by the choir.
The Toccata for Organ and Tape is slightly bizarre – you end up listening to a recording of a recording – but actually quite exciting in the way the organ interacts with the electrical sounds, and it's the most obvious place in the recording to pay tribute to the virtuosic musicianship of Edward Picton-Turbervill, whose keyboard skills are repeatedly remarkable. Laus Deo is every bit as impressive.
As well as providing the sung texts in the booklet, Nethsingha also provides extensive notes about not only the music but also the choices he made in performing it, which prove to be not only illuminating but also a real aid to enjoying the disc. In short, a most auspicious beginning to what, I hope, will be a very fruitful working relationship.