Gaudent in Coelis Sally BEAMISH (b.1956) Gaudent in coelis [3:05] Joanna MARSH (b.1970)
Lord, Thou has searched me and known me [3:23] Judith BINGHAM (b.1952)
Edington Service [9:14] Joanna MARSH
Missa Brevis: Collegium Sancta Catharinae [16:44] Sally BEAMISH
Two Canticles [6:45] Judith BINGHAM/Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
The Spirit of Truth/If ye Love me [6:25] Judith BINGHAM/Samuel Sebastian WELSEY (1810-1876)
The darkness is no darkness/Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace [7:27] Judith BINGHAM/Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Distant Thunder/My soul there is a country [9:04] Sally BEAMISH
St Catharine's Service [6:51]
Will Fairbairn, Alex Coplan (organ)
The Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge/Edward Wickham
rec. 2016, Chapel of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, RESONUS RES10185 [69:08]
The intention here seems to be to present the church music of three living women composers in performances by mostly female voices. A worthy idea, no doubt, but not necessarily one which works to the benefit of everyone involved, and there is a certain lack of coherence and logic in the programme, while some of the pieces simply do not sound to their best in the very intimate acoustic (faithfully captured in this clean Resonus recording) of the St Catharine’s College Chapel. That, though, is no reflection on the performers who acquit themselves very well indeed in music which is often very tricky and calls for a particularly acute awareness of inner tuning.
The disc describes the performers as being the “choirs” of St Catharine’s College, and indeed there are two of them here. The first is the College Choir comprising around two dozen students both male and female, while the second is the St Catharine’s Girls’ Choir, comprising 20 girls aged between eight and fifteen. Both have been trained by Edward Wickham to a very high standard, producing a clear, firm sound, always secure in pitching and diction and with a fine, easy level of projection which allows for a broad dynamic range and a consistency of tone quality across the range. Two organ scholars – Will Fairbairn and Alex Coplan - share the honours in the often complex organ parts.
Many of the works performed fit the particular quality of these voices and the intimacy of the tiny chapel very well. Notable among these are the work which gives the disc its title, Sally Beamish’s Gaudent in Coelis. It possesses that incisive rhythmic drive and spicy chromatic chording which seems a happy blend of Mathias and Leighton, but it also has a pleasing fresh-faced feel in this buoyant and nimble performance.
Beamish’s setting of Evening canticles for the College Choir is said to have taken its inspiration from the ancient Celtic Quern songs. I may be wrong, but I understood a Quern song to be something sung by those involved in repetitive agricultural labour and using syllabic utterances rather than actual words. If this is what Beamish means, then we can perhaps detect that in the sense of continuous momentum in both Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. In the case of the latter, that momentum is kept alive by a delicately tapping organ accompaniment. Certainly this setting has a tautness and purpose which is pleasing, but it also has a slightly relentless quality which the very bright sound of these singers, not helped by a marked lack of real bass resonance in the youthful male voices, does nothing to alleviate.
The two unaccompanied Canticles by Beamish are altogether more successful and make for rewarding listening. In Canticle by the lax pool the crisp and precise delivery of the text by the girl singers is most endearing, as is the way in which Wickham tunes the tightly knit cluster chords which so often come at ends of phrases. Among the Sundered People largely sunders the female voices and male voices and reveals that the College Choir has a strong inner unity which allows them to keep a musical line in the air even as it jumps across the voices.
Joanna Marsh’s Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me is a deeply expressive setting of verses from Psalm 139 written in memory of her mother who died in 2013. For this, Wickham draws from his singers a rich vein of warmth and intensity, and I particularly admire the way he moulds each phrase to have a clear sense of shape, as well as the command he shows in managing the continual dynamic ebbing and flowing of the choral sound. Altogether more austere, but no less effective, Marsh’s Missa Brevis written last year for the two St Catharine’s choirs, has a lot of very fine music in it as well as an astute handling of the choral forces, and while the Kyrie might not come across here as delicate and transparent as I suspect it could, the exceptionally alert tuning of the choir in the many tightly-knit cluster chords is never anything but impressive. This is very evident in the Gloria which, above a firmly treading organ pedal, projects a series of luminous chords with a vivid dynamic range. However, the work adheres possibly a little too closely to a single musical idea for it to offer much when heard out of its liturgical context.
For my money the most accomplished music here comes from Judith Bingham, whose Edington Service is given in an arrangement made by the composer for upper voices and organ derived from the SATB setting she made for the Edington Festival in 2005. The girls’ voices have a haunting quality as they intone their wide-ranging line above an irregular organ pedal, which beautifully evokes the idea, as Bingham puts it in the booklet note, of “wafting down the airways from a long time ago”. Once again, Wickham secures immaculate technical control from his singers, and his slight sense of detachment from the music itself helps create that aura of timelessness which is at the heart of this unusual but highly imaginative setting.
A feeling of spanning the centuries also pervades Bingham’s intriguing, if not always entirely convincing, prequels to a handful of choral classics. In these she has attempted to “reveal the sometimes overlooked harmonic richness” in the originals by taking a small idea from the original and honing in on a particular harmonic device. In the case of the Wesley and Parry anthems, this helps provide a musical link, but I find the connection between Bingham’s prequel and Tallis’s original difficult to negotiate first time around.
An interesting disc which features some fine singing and intriguing music, but is best dipped into rather than listened to in one sitting – both musically and aurally it has a certain claustrophobic quality.
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