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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Mass in G FP89 [17:42]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Missa Brevis [30:47]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Otčenáš JW IV/29 [15:00]
Joseph Wicks, Glen Dempsey (organ), Anne Denholm (harp)
Choir of St.John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2016, St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge

A mouth-watering programme of 20th century choral masterpieces, sung by a choir I have often admired on disc and in concert, sounded promising. How disappointing then to listen to performances that, while full of enthusiasm and musical feeling, just fail to hit the spot.

The piece they begin with, Poulenc’s Mass in G of 1937-8, is a superb but cruelly difficult piece that, with its stratospheric writing for the sopranos, can stretch the resources of any adult chamber choir. The trebles of St.John’s have a brave try, but…..oh dear. The finest recording of this work I have yet heard is probably that by the Choir of Bavarian Radio directed by Peter Dijkstra (Oehms). To be fair, the treble solo in the Agnus Dei, Joel Branston, sings seraphically – indeed that movement is the most successful of the five. The trebles’ problems with the tessitura of the Poulenc is not the only issue; the whole sound of the choir is wrong for this music. Poulenc had female sopranos in mind, and would no doubt have loathed the hooting countertenors of St. John’s. The tenor sound is so sweetly English, and the basses so very adolescent (despite the undoubted accomplishment of their singing and musicianship) that the whole character of the music is always in danger of going missing.

Those issues persist in the next work, Kodály’s wartime Missa Brevis. The shortcomings are not so serious here, though, because the work is essentially a simpler and more direct one than Poulenc’s. There is also some fine solo singing, particularly that of Thomas Lilburn in the Gloria. The organ Introitus is splendidly played by Joseph Wicks, but in later movements the engineers have hit the usual problems found when recording choir and organ in a resonant acoustic, with the organ tending to become a murky and indistinct background.

The most enjoyable item is the final one, Janáček’s Otčenáš of 1901. This setting of the Lord’s Prayer is enhanced by the beautiful writing for the harp, joined quietly by the organ. Michael Bell’s contribution as tenor soloist is creditworthy too, though he doesn’t attempt to find the passionate commitment of a Czech tenor – probably wisely!

Some good things, then; but overall a disappointing disc.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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