A Year at Saint Patrick’s
The Choir of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin/Stuart Nicholson
David Leigh (organ)
rec. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, 2017
REGENT REGCD504 [75:53]
One of the quirks of Dublin’s fair city is that, while it’s the capital of a very obviously Roman Catholic country, both of its cathedrals are Protestant. (The Catholic community has the pro-Cathedral which, for ecclesiastical-historical reasons that I don’t quite understand, doesn't seem quite to count.) Saint Patrick’s has a greater link to the Anglo-Irish ruling class, mainly because Jonathan Swift was Dean there from 1713 until his death in 1745. I confess I know barely anything about the musical pedigrees of either cathedral, saving that, as a schoolboy growing up outside Belfast, one of my teachers said that Saint Patrick’s had decisively the best church choir in Ireland.
On the evidence of this disc, he wasn’t lying. It’s a treat of extremely well chosen music, often with an Irish twist, given uniformly excellent performances and captured perfectly in the resonant acoustic. The mixed choir has boys’ voices, and a rather unusual balance that makes for a very interesting sound. The booklet note lists the names of twenty-one trebles as opposed to only two altos, three tenors and four basses. It’s a credit to their vocal blend, and the skill of director Stuart Nicholson, that the balance never feels lopsided and, if anything, they use it to their advantage. Interestingly, Saint Patrick’s is one of the very few Anglican choral foundations where the boys still sing Matins daily in the cathedral during the school term, perhaps explaining why there are so many of them.
Their progress though the church year is chronological and begins, as does the church year, in Advent with a Creator of the Stars of Night that is appealingly straightforward in its plainchant. Mathias’ A Babe is Born is wonderfully playful, with the boys’ voices carolling joyfully above the stave while the organ underpins everything richly. This arrangement of We Three Kings is director Stuart Nicholson’s own, and it’s pleasingly pictorial (a very lugubrious tone for Myrrh, for example, with some plangent alto tone), and brought to life vividly by the arranger’s own team. Nicholson also contributes the delicious arrangement of Lord of the Dance, which defies the listener to join in, particularly in the waltz of its final verses, and it must be a magnificent way to welcome the risen Christ on Easter Sunday morning.
Stanford, another pillar of the Anglo-Irish establishment, appears, appropriately, in his arrangement of Saint Patrick’s breastplate. It’s four-square and serious, but it’s very well done, and the gentler interlude of “Christ be with me” casts a very sensitive contrast, as does the exultant final Amen. We also get his magisterial For lo, I raise up for the feast of the Transfiguration, and I loved the way the choir really get their teeth into the violence of the words of the opening. The music then dissolves into a transcendentally beautiful realisation of God’s grace, which the choir meet with just the right tone of soft beauty and decisive assurance.
Saint Luke’s feast day is 18th October. As the patron saint of doctors, he is commemorated in a suitably medicinal text which is set with great sensitivity by William Henry Harris, he who is best known for Faire is the Heaven, and it is brought to life by the choir with appropriate vigour. Matthew Martin’s setting of Justorum animae is subtle and mysterious, the opening sounding particularly magical in the tenors and altos, and the men sound just as good in Hewson’s setting of Tennyson’s Sunset and Evening Star, which has all the appeal of sitting in a smoking jacket by the fire.
David Briggs’ Magnificat was commissioned by Saint Patrick’s to honour the memory of a member of the cathedral board, so it makes an appropriate piece to commemorate the feast of the Annunciation. The Nunc dimittis, meanwhile, is an appealingly warm setting from Ernest Dines, a lay vicar choral at Saint Patrick’s, while Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful meanders thoughtfully in a manner that aids contemplation. Moore also provides the disc’s closing number, an anthem to commemorate Jonathan Swift himself, whose time at the cathedral is remembered every year on the Sunday evensong closest to the date of his death (also 18th October, Saint Luke’s day).
The organ’s specifications aren’t given in the booklet, but it sounds marvellous both as accompanier and in Gaston Litaize’s Epiphany, the only organ solo on the disc.
Brief biographies of organist and choir master are given in the booklet note, together with useful information about each work and the English texts of all the pieces performed. I enjoyed this disc enormously, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to explore an example of how successfully the English tradition of church music can export itself beyond England’s borders.
1 Advent Creator of the stars of night Conditor Alme (Mode iv) 2:19
2 Christmas A babe is born William Mathias 3:22
3 Epiphany We three kings John Henry Hopkins Jr, arr Stuart Nicholson 4:50
4 Epiphanie Gaston Litaize 4:24
5 Patronal I bind unto myself today from the Petrie Collection of Irish Music arr Charles Villiers Stanford 9:59
6 Annunciation Magnificat (Saint Patrick’s Service) David Briggs 7:01
7 Passiontide It is a thing most wonderful Philip Moore 5:52
8 Easter Lord of the Dance American Shaker tune, adapt Sydney Carter, arr Stuart Nicholson 4:02
9 Transfiguration For lo I raise up Stanford 8:04
10 Saint Luke Strengthen ye the weak hands William Henry Harris 7:40
11 All Saints Justorum Animae Matthew Martin 2:35
12 All Souls Sunset and evening star George Henry Philips Hewson 3:51
13 Remembrance Nunc Dimittis in E flat Ernest Dines 2:44
14 Birth of Swift All wisdom cometh from the Lord Philip Moore 9:08