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The Evening Hour - British Choral Music from the 16th and 20th Centuries
The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge/Mark Williams; Bertie Bagent and Benjamin Morris (organ)
rec. 29 June–2 July 2015, Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge
Texts and English translations included

Back in the days when the major record companies like Decca and EMI dominated the market a handful of Oxbridge collegiate choirs, such as King’s or St. John’s, Cambridge could be heard in recordings. However, a choir such as that of Jesus College, Cambridge would have struggled to make its mark. It’s one of the many benefits of the rise of independent labels that we can now hear discs from choirs such as this and I hope that anyone who hears this disc will agree with me that this is a very good thing. This is, I believe, the choir’s fifth CD for Signum. I’ve heard and enjoyed most of their previous releases (review ~ review ~ review).

As is clear from the title of the album, the programme features a good deal of music associated with the liturgies celebrated by the Christian Church towards the end of the day though some pieces have different nocturnal associations. The contents have been chosen with discernment so that a few pieces that may be less familiar nestle among better-known items.

Most people familiar with the Anglican liturgies will know Bairstow’s impressive anthem Blessed city, heav’nly Salem but his Save us O Lord may be less familiar. Prior to his long tenure as organist of York Minster (1913-1946) Bairstow held similar posts first at Wigan Parish Church and then at Leeds Parish Church. Save us O Lord is a Compline anthem, dating from his Wigan days. It’s a rather beautiful, prayerful setting and its organ part, sensitively played here by the College’s Assistant Organist, Benjamin Morris, is suitably subdued. At the other end of the programme stands the imposing Blessed city, heav’nly Salem, which is clearly the work of a man who was accustomed to playing the mighty organ of York Minster. Here Benjamin Morris gets the chance to show what he can do with a frankly spectacular organ part and he doesn’t disappoint. Nor do the singers who, according to the demands of this varied piece, offer singing that is either full-throated or sensitive.

Blessed city, heav’nly Salem is one of three pieces on the disc that is sung by the College’s Combined Choirs. Jesus College is, I believe, unique among Oxbridge colleges in maintaining two choirs. There’s the Chapel Choir, the existence of which can be traced back to the foundation of the college in 1496; that choir includes boy trebles. Since 1982 the college has also boasted the College Choir, which includes female undergraduates on the top line. The two choirs share the duties of weekly singing serves in the college chapel and sometimes perform together as the Combined Choirs. To me this seems like having your cake and eating it, which is something of which I heartily approve.

The Combined Choirs also sing the Berkeley setting, which is one of so many that came about through the enlightened patronage of Walter Hussey, sometime Dean of Chichester Cathedral. It’s a most attractive piece and it’s very nicely done. In his very useful notes Philip Borg-Wheeler refers to Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn as “a classic of English church music.” I agree, and I greatly enjoyed the present performance by the Combined Choirs. The unaccompanied central section has the right degree of mystery but it’s the grand, sweeping outer sections that really make a mark. This is a splendid performance.

“Classic” is a word which I would also use in respect of Bring us O Lord God by Sir William Harris. It’s a wonderful work which Mark Williams and the College Choir do very well. Harris’s piece is justly renowned but Philip Moore’s Evening Prayers may not be so well known. It’s a setting for unaccompanied four-part choir of three short prayers by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Moore based the setting on the chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, a favourite of Bonhoeffer’s. Moore’s achievement in this lovely and eloquent work is to let the essential humanity and strong faith of the prayers’ author shine through. The College Choir makes a fine job of it. They also impress in Gabriel Jackson’s Creator of the stars of night, realising Jackson’s airy, luminous textures very successfully. I’m also grateful to them for introducing to me a lovely little piece I didn’t know, Philip Moore’s God be in my head.

The Chapel Choir has fewer items on this programme but what they have to sing comes across very well. They do well in Tavener’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer, a piece written for the Tallis Scholars and I enjoyed their account of Blitheman’s In Pace. Mention should also be made of the little setting by Richard Rodney Bennett for trebles and organ. This merits its inclusion here for two reasons: firstly because it’s a very good piece and secondly because it was commissioned by Jesus College. The boys sing it with great confidence.

Once again, as in the case of previous discs that I’ve heard, the singers of Jesus College give great pleasure and they are well supported by the two organists. The recording was engineered by Mike Hatch so it’s no surprise to find that the sound is pleasing and truthful.

There’s a lot of lovely music on this CD to which Mark Williams and his excellent choirs do full justice.

John Quinn

Track listing

Philip RADCLIFFE (1905-1986)
God be in my head [1:29]
Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Save us O Lord (1902) [4:56]
John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558)
In manus tuas [4:02]
Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Song at Evening [3:25]
William BYRD (1540-1623)
Miserere mihi Domine [2:49]
Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
Creator of the stars of night (2000) [3:52]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
The Lord is my Shepherd (1975) [4:43]
Robert WHYTE (c1538-1574)
Christe qui lux es et dies IV [6:03]
Henry Balfour GARDINER (1877-1950)
Evening Hymn (1908) [6:24]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Behold thou hast made my days [5:30]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Evening Watch (1924) [4:29]
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013)
The Lord’s Prayer (1999) [3:08]
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us O Lord God (1959) [4:09]
John BLITHEMAN (c1525-1591)
In Pace [4:14]
Philip MOORE (b1943)
Evening Prayers (1980) [6:03]
Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585)
Miserere nostri [3:22]
Sir Edward BAIRSTOW Blessed city, heav’nly Salem [9:10]


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