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Choir of St John’s College Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Glen Dempsey, Joseph Wicks (organ)
Stephanie Childress, Julia Hwang (violin)
Anne Denholm (harp)
rec. live at the Advent Carol Services, 2014-2017, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD535 [60:19]
Andrew Nethsingha writes in the booklet note for this release that “Advent is to St John’s as Christmas is to King’s.” How true! It may be a less familiar family occasion, but I’ve always loved Advent’s sense of drama and often overt theatricality. The choir moves around the building a lot, after all, and the themes of Advent carry much less straightforward comfort than those of Christmas. Christmas’ is a message of hope, but Advent’s also warns also of coming judgement and the need to be ready for the Day of the Lord.
BBC Radio 3 has broadcast every St John’s Advent service since 1981, and this disc consists of nineteen tracks that are taken from those recordings in Nethsingha’s time, specifically ranging from 2014 to 2017. All are, therefore, live and in-the-flesh, unlike the choir’s other recent Signum recordings. Those BBC Broadcasts are captured with a tone that is, to my ears, often unlovely and rather distant. You wouldn't guess that from this disc, though. The sound has been cleaned up beautifully by Simon Gibson from the Abbey Road studio, and the choir sound very present, recessed only in the way that they fit into the comely acoustic of the chapel.
Like King’s at Christmas Eve, the Advent service contains a new commission, three of which are captured here. It’s not all new stuff, though, and the choir give us an admirably full run-through of Advent’s different traditions.
The austere unisons of Britten’s Hymn of St Columba embody the service’s serious message, commemorating judgement, the second coming and the Day of the Lord. A similar tone surrounds RVW’s famous arrangement of The Truth from Above while James Long’s Vigilate is as spiky as the warnings it contains. The polyphonic lines of Palestrina’s Fuit homo interweave beautifully, and there is a lovely sense of to-and-fro to Gibbon’s This is the Record of John, though the countertenor soloist was a little too warbly for my taste.
Some numbers have a solidly traditional “Oxbridge” feel to them, for want of a better word. Into that category I put Malcolm Archer’s Linden Tree Carol, Joubert’s famous There is no Rose, and Pittman's Gabriel's Message, all of which sound beautiful, if a little safe. Jackson’s I Know A Flower is similar, but its rich harmonies (and sensuous performance) make it a little more special.
I really enjoyed James Burton’s tuneful, sprightly arrangement of Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day, and Stephen Cleobury’s take on the Cherry Tree Carol is cut from the same genial cloth, as is Alan Bullard’s Glory to the Christ Child. Ian Shaw’s two carols are lovely, and I particularly enjoyed the spare harp and unison trebles of I Sing of a Maiden.
Tim Watts, a current fellow of St John’s, creates a carol that is both rewarding and challenging in The Birth of Speech, drawing on an array of textures that include whispering trebles and a pair of violins that complement the organ and voices. Less various of texture, Paul Comeau’s Lux Mundi is searching and deeply thoughtful, as well as beautiful. Judith Weir’s The Clouded Heaven fulfils a similar brief, and David Bednall’s Noe noe ends the disc with a burst of festive exuberance.
The tone of the choral sound is remarkably diverse, encompassing a wide range of emotions ranging from cold austerity and aloof seriousness, though to dancing merriment via hymnic seriousness. The resonant acoustic of the chapel is the unacknowledged constant, and the engineers have done a great job of reproducing it in a way that sounds cleaner than it ever does on the radio.
There aren’t many discs of music specifically for Advent, so this one is self-recommending if that’s what you’re after. It helps that the booklet contains full texts, essays and biographies of the performers. This disc is definitely worthy to set alongside the choir’s lovely (and justifiably popular) Christmas disc of 2016.
A hymn of St. Columba (Benjamin Britten) [2:06]
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (James Burton) [4:29]
The truth sent from above (Ralph Vaughan Williams) [2:40]
Adam lay ybounden (Ian Shaw) [1:54]
The cherry tree carol (trad. arr. Stephen Cleobury) [2:45]
Vigilate (James Long) [4:11]
Fuit homo missus a Deo (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) [3:18]
This is the record of John (Orlando Gibbons) [4:18]
The linden tree carol (Malcolm Archer) [2:00]
There is no rose (John Joubert) [2:18]
The birth of speech (Tim Watts) [5:28]
The angel Gabriel from heaven came (Basque carol arr. Edgar Pettman) [2:19]
I know a flower (Francis Jackson) [3:01]
Glory to the Christ Child (Alan Bullard) [2:30]
Lux mundi (Paul Comeau) [5:42]
I sing of a maiden (Ian Shaw) [2:10]
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (trad. arr. David Willcocks) [2:01]
The clouded heaven (Judith Bingham) [4:07]
Noe, noe (David Bednall) [3:01]