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

In her lively and useful liner-notes Charlotte Gardner points out that while many people value tradition when they think of Christmas the season also presents a golden opportunity to offer some new music to audiences. Every year brings yet more CDs of Christmas music and it’s always seemed to me that the most appealing are those that mix tradition and novelty. I prefer the balance to be weighted slightly towards novelty and that’s one of several reasons why this new Christmas collection from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge is an attractive proposition.

I hope I’ll be forgiven for dealing fairly swiftly with the more familiar pieces such as The Holly and the Ivy, Adam lay ybounden, O little town of Bethlehem and Silent Night. All of these are as immaculately rendered as anything else on the programme. It’s good to see the Walford Davies setting of O little town given an airing along with its introductory recitativo, delightfully sung by treble Oliver Brown. Mark Blatchly’s sensitive arrangement of Silent Night is very well worth hearing too.

Arguably some of the more recent items also could be classed as familiar. I have in mind William Mathias’s Sir Christèmas, which gets a performance full of punch and vitality, and John Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The latter is performed with the optional percussion parts and brings the programme to a splendid conclusion. Bob Chilcott’s beautifully wrought The Shepherd’s Carol is set fair to become a modern classic of the genre and Nethsingha and his choir give an ideal performance of it, as they do of John Rutter’s beguilingly gentle Dormi Jesu. It’s time, however, to focus on some of the items which may be much less familiar.

Top of that list, I suppose, would be Michael Finnissy’s John the Baptist, a St John’s commission. The text is adapted from the medieval York Mystery Plays. The music is often vigorous and dramatic though there are two passages, one in the middle and one at the end, which are calmer and more reflective. The organ part is pretty spectacular and includes interludes transcribed directly from recordings of Moroccan Berber music. I found it most interesting. That piece was new to me but I’ve heard Cecilia McDowall’s O Oriens before. It’s one of the settings of the so-called ‘Great O Antiphons’ commissioned by Merton College, Oxford. I was very taken with it when I heard its premiere recording (review) and greater familiarity with it convinces me that it’s a marvellous setting. The music is slow-moving and the harmonic language is rich and resourceful.

Another piece new to me was one written slightly before the Finnissy: William Whitehead’s The seven joys of Mary. This uses the familiar tune but puts it, appropriately, into 7/4 time with some interesting results. The organ contribution grabs the attention just as much as do the vocal parts, which are rhythmically vital. This piece is a winner. I am glad that Andrew Nethsingha has honoured the late John Scott, a former Organ Scholar at St John’s, by including his Creator of the stars of night. I’d not heard this before but I’m pleased that I have. It’s plainsong-based and while Scott preserves the plainsong melody he gives it new harmonic life. I don’t recall hearing Peter Tranchell’s People, look East before. Originally written for ATB it’s heard here in an SATB version made by Peter Marchbank. The music is vivacious and Tranchell’s almost continuous use of syncopated rhythms imparts terrific life into the music. The roster of pieces new to me is competed by Anthony Milner’s Out of your sleep arise. Again, this is a piece I’m delighted to discover. It’s festive and full of energy. Mention should also be made of Philip Ledger’s A spotless rose. It must be a challenge to set words that have been set so memorably by Herbert Howells but Ledger’s response is lovely and tender. This is a refreshing change from Howells’ little masterpiece. Another refreshing change is provided by Simon Preston in his arrangement of I saw three ships. This is one of the best arrangements of the carol that I know; it’s lively and imaginative and as you might expect, given who has made the arrangement, the organ part calls for no little virtuosity. The St John’s performance combines flamboyance and precision.

Throughout this programme the choral singing is marvellous. Andrew Nethsingha inherited a choir with a great tradition of excellence going right back to the days of George Guest but he’s clearly put his own stamp on the choir, which he’s directed since 2007. All sections of the choir sing really well and the balance between the sections is excellent. I must single out the trebles for particular praise. The sound they produce is keen and very well focused. Even in the best choirs you sometimes find instances where the trebles’ tuning is not quite 100% accurate. That’s not the case here; the St John’s trebles are spot-on throughout. There are several solo opportunities for various voices during the programme and without exception these are expertly taken. The organ parts, some of which are highly demanding, are in the expert hands of Joseph Wicks. At the time of this recording he was the college’s Herbert Howells Organ Scholar. He’s now the Assistant Organist. He plays marvellously throughout.

The recorded sound is first rate. The choir has been most sympathetically recorded and the balance between the choir and the organ has been very well judged: the organ makes a fine impact but never overpowers the singers. The excellent notes by Charlotte Gardner contain succinct comments on each piece and she conveys some interesting little nuggets of information. I didn’t know, for example that the setting of Adam lay ybounden was the only composition that Boris Ord ever published. Nor did I know that the English translation of the Latin text set by Rutter in Dormi Jesu was made by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

In summary, this is a highly enjoyable and superbly performed Christmas collection. It respects the traditions of Christmas music but provides plenty of examples of how composers are developing that tradition in exciting ways.

John Quinn

Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) The Shepherd’s Carol (2000)
Traditional, arr. Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941) The Holly and the Ivy (1913)
William Mathias (1934-1992) Sir Christèmas (1969)
Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) O Oriens (2012)
Boris Ord (1897-1961) Adam lay ybounden
Sir Philip Ledger (1937-2012) A spotless rose (2002)
William Whitehead (b. 1970) The seven joys of Mary (2010)
John Rutter (b. 1945) Dormi Jesu
Plainsong, arr. John Scott (1956-2015) Creator of the stars of night (2007)
Carl Rütti (b. 1949) I wonder as I wander (1996)
Sir Henry Walford Davies O little town of Bethlehem (1913)
Traditional arr. Simon Preston (b. 1938) I saw three ships (1965)
Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) Three Kings (1856)
Traditional, arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926) Ding, dong, merrily on high
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) As dew in Aprylle (1924)
Michael Finnissy (b. 1946) John the Baptist (2014)
Andrew Carter (b. 1939) Mary’s Magnificat (1986)
Peter Tranchell (1922-1993) People, look East (1982)
Franz Gruber, arr. Mark Blatchly (b. 1960) Silent Night
Anthony Milner (1925-2002) Out of your sleep arise (1959)
Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree (1967)
John Gardner (1917-2011) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1965)



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