A Year at Tewkesbury
Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum of Dean Close Preparatory School/Simon
Carleton Etherington & Edward Turner (organ)
rec. 9-10 March and 11-12 May, 2015, Tewkesbury Abbey
REGENT REGCD474 [75:07]
I’ve heard several of the discs in Regent’s ‘A Year at….’ series and I think they’re an excellent way to showcase a cathedral or church choir. This release lets us hear the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum of Dean Close Preparatory School. The somewhat lengthy name, which I will abbreviate to ‘Schola’ during this review, is worthy of explanation. The Schola is, in fact, one of two choirs that have the privilege of singing for the liturgies in the magnificent surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey. I believe that weekend services are generally sung by the adult SATB Abbey Choir but weekday services, principally Choral Evensong, are celebrated by the Schola.
What is now the Schola was established when the Abbey School, a small independent preparatory school was founded in 1973. Here the boy choristers were educated until 2006 when the school was obliged to close. It seemed then that the future of the Abbey’s all-male choir was in serious jeopardy but fortunately another independent school, Dean Close School in Cheltenham came to the rescue, the boys have been educated there ever since and the all-male choir, with its new name, continues to flourish. In addition to the trebles there are eleven Lay Clerks, all of them expert local singers. Since 2012 the choir has been directed by Simon Bell, who is also Director of Choral Music at Dean Close School. His predecessor in both posts was Benjamin Nicholas, now Director of Music at Merton College, Oxford, who in his 12 years at Tewkesbury laid the firm foundations on which, as this recording proves, Simon Bell is continuing to build impressively. On this disc the choir numbers 28 singers (17/3/4/4).
The programme starts with the season of Advent and proceeds through Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascensiontide, Pentecost and Trinity to the last Sunday in the ecclesiastical year, which is the Feast of Christ the King. Along the way a number of individual feast days and festivals are also marked in music. The programme has been well chosen, striking a balance between a few staples of the repertoire and a good leavening of pieces that are less familiar.
Among the less familiar fare – at least to me – was Christopher Steel’s Advent piece, People, look East which is a fresh, appealing composition. There’s a local connection here in that Steel spent part of his career teaching music at the nearby independent school, Cheltenham College. I’ve heard a lot of Bob Chilcott’s music before but not, I think, There is no rose, which here receives its first recording. It’s a serene, gently flowing a cappella setting. The piece was published not long before the death of Sir David Willcocks who was Director of Music at Kings College Cambridge when Chilcott was a chorister there. Touchingly, the piece is dedicated to Sir David and dare I say I think it would have been right up his street. There’s a nicely taken treble solo (William Evans) in the last verse.
As with Chilcott, I’ve heard and been impressed by a lot of David Bednall’s choral music, mainly on disc, but Alleluya, a new work is come on hand is new to me. It was commissioned by the Schola and here gets a debut recording. It’s a fine, energetic piece and, as is often the case with Bednall, there’s an important organ part. At the other end of the programme stands another Schola commission in the shape of Matthew Martin’s Laudate Dominum. This was written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the choir’s foundation and also in memory of Miles Amherst, their founder. Martin was a fitting choice for this commission, not just because he’s an excellent composer but also because I’m almost certain he was a pupil at Dean Close School in the late 1990s. This piece is a Latin setting of Psalm 150 and, as John Lee rightly observes in his notes, it’s ‘a riot of rhythmic excitement where choir and organ spark off one another in a song of uncompromising praise, music and joy.’ I have heard this before on a disc devoted to Martin’s choral music (review) but I’m delighted to hear also the punchy, vital account of it by the choir which gave the first performance. Martin’s I sing of a maiden couldn’t be more different. It’s a gentle, lovely piece and I enjoyed the treble solo (Tom Richardson) at the start.
Also completely new to me was Gracious Spirit by Sebastian Forbes. This is another adventurous choice. Sung here, appropriately, as a Pentecost anthem, it was composed for the marriage of two members of the BBC Singers so I think we can guess that there were some pretty expert singers on hand that day to do the honours. It’s a tonally ambiguous piece, during much of which the choir sings unaccompanied. I understand that the dynamics never rise higher than mf. I doubt it’s easy to sing but the Schola makes a good job of it.
More familar fare comes from Elgar in the shape of his expansive and often dramatic anthem, Give unto the Lord. The Schola sings this very well, both in the big, ‘public’ passages and in the more reflective episodes while Carleton Etherington makes a splendid contribution from the organ loft. Also on a grand scale is Bairstow’s Sing ye to the Lord which also features an imposing organ part. Indeed, so majestic is the organ contribution at times that one might expect that Bairstow had written the anthem during his long tenure at York Minster when he had the large organ at his disposal. In fact he wrote it a couple of years before moving to York when he was organist at Leeds Parish Church. The Schola is just as successful in the calmer music of the same composer’s I sat down under his shadow.
Though I haven’t mentioned every piece in the programme I can attest that the same high standards of performance apply throughout. The Schola is on fine form here and Simon Bell’s discerning programme puts them through their paces in a wide variety of styles. They receive splendid support from both organists, Carleton Etherington and Edward Turner.
Tewkesbury Abbey is a wonderful place in which to sing. Gary Cole has recorded the singers – and the organ – very well indeed, making expert use of the Abbey’s generous acoustic. The excellent documentation includes succinct but very useful notes by John Lees.
Christopher STEEL (1938–91) People, look East [3:15]
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) There is no rose (2014)† [3:23]
David BEDNALL (b.1979) Alleluya, a new work is come on hand (2014)†‡ [3:14]
French traditional, arr Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–88) O leave your sheep (1963) [4:32]
Charles WOOD (1866–1926) Nunc dimittis in B flat (1916) [3:03]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505–85) In ieiunio et fletu [4:02]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824–96) Tota pulchra es Maria [4:46]
Grayston IVES (b.1948) Ubi caritas‡ [4:35]
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874–1946) Sing ye to the Lord (1911) [5:00]
William WALTON (1902–83) Antiphon (1978) [3:25]
Sebastian FORBES (b.1941) Gracious Spirit (1968) [3:06]
Edward ELGAR (1857–1934) Give unto the Lord (1914) [9:00]
Edward BAIRSTOW I sat down under his shadow (1925) [1:44]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852–1924) Benedictus in C (1909) [5:20]
Matthew MARTIN (b.1976) I sing of a maiden (2010) [2:25]
Thomas WEELKES (?1576–1623) Alleluia. I heard a voice [2:53]
John TAVENER (1944–2013) Funeral Ikos [7:41]
Matthew MARTIN Laudate Dominum (2014)‡ [3:36]
†First recording; ‡Commissioned by the choir