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Advent Live
The 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
Texts included

It’s often said that for many people Christmas begins with the Christmas Eve broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. For me, though – and I suspect I’m not alone in this – the musical side of Christmas really commences with the broadcast of the Service for Advent with Carols from the Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge. This broadcast always occurs on the First Sunday in Advent and though its broadcast lineage doesn’t extend quite as far back as does that of the King’s service it is still a firm fixture in the BBC schedules, Actually, I find the St John’s service the more appealing: there is a greater annual variety of music than I tend to find in the King’s schedule and, furthermore, notwithstanding the long list of annual commissions initiated by Stephen Cleobury, I have the impression that the St John’s repertoire is more adventurous when it comes to new or recent pieces, even if their new commissions have only been an annual feature since 2008..

For this disc Andrew Nethsingha, the Director of Music at St John’s since 2007, has selected BBC recordings of pieces sung at the Advent Services in the four years from 2014 to 2017. He has chosen one or two old favourites: Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is something of a classic – here it’s very well sung – and Edgar Pettman’s The angel Gabriel from heaven came is also extremely well known, but many of the items will be unfamiliar. Even Britten’s A hymn of St. Columba might be felt marginally to fall in the unfamiliar category; it’s less known than some of his other short choral works. On the other hand, most listeners will be familiar with Gibbons’ fine verse anthem This is the record of John. This anthem includes a substantial alto solo and in an introductory note Andrew Nethsingha relates that when this particular performance took place in 2016 the St John’s soloist, Hugh Cutting found that a distinguished alumnus of St John’s choir was sitting right opposite him in the quire: Iestyn Davies, no less! So, no pressure, then. Cutting was not deterred, it seems; he sings the demanding solo very well indeed.

Understandably, and rightly, St John’s connections abound in the programme. James Burton, now the Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Chorus Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was commissioned by Andrew Nethsingha to provide a piece that would be ‘something fun, wacky, quirky, catchy, fast’. I’d say that Burton’s setting of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day fulfils the brief admirably. It starts off simply and attractively but as the text takes us from Christ’s birth, through his life to his death, Resurrection and Ascension, the music grows ever more complex and ambitious, journeying through many keys. The ending is very exciting with one young treble, George Balfour fearlessly going up to a clearly audible top A.

Ian Shaw, another college alumnus contributes two carols which were written to complement each other. Both are for trebles only. In Adam lay ybounden the accompaniment is provided by the organ. It’s an interesting piece but even more appealing is the delicate I sing of a maiden with harp accompaniment. Stephen Cleobury is best-known for his long service at King’s College but early on he was an Organ Scholar at St John’s. Irrespective of that connection, his arrangement of The cherry tree carol would amply justify its inclusion. It’s an inventive setting in which the treatment of every verse is enterprisingly different.

In his introduction Andrew Nethsingha points out that the new carols haven’t always found universal favour with radio listeners. He refers to adverse feedback to the BBC in 2015 and I suspect that this may have been occasioned by Tim Watts’ The birth of speech, which was broadcast that year. I can understand why there might have been listener disquiet because the piece by Watts, a current Fellow of the college is challenging – and intriguing. Unusually, it includes parts for two violins as well as for organ. I can also imagine that James Long’s Vigilate, first heard in 2014, might have ruffled a few feathers. This a cappella piece features rather jagged writing and is strongly rhythmical. If I’m honest, it’s a piece that I can respect rather than love.

It’s good to find some of our most senior living composers represented. John Joubert’s There is no rose is justly celebrated; it’s very lovely and the St John’s choir does it justice. Francis Jackson’s I know a flower may not be as well-known as the Joubert piece but it deserves to be. It’s a beautiful piece which seems to me to be a fine response to the words. The music is grateful to hear and, I imagine, grateful also to sing. Pleasingly, it was included in the Advent Service of 2017, a few weeks after Dr Jackson celebrated his 100th birthday.

The works by Joubert and Jackson both evidence a great knowledge of and empathy for the human voice. So too, in my experience, does the music of Judith Bingham, albeit her style is very different. The clouded heaven, co-commissioned by St John’s and Winchester Cathedral in 1998, is an excellent example of her invention when it comes to choral textures. I’ve heard and admired the piece before and I admired this present performance very much. On the other hand, I’ve not previously encountered the music of Paul Comeau, so his Lux mundi was completely new to me. It was written in 1994 for Andrew Nethsingha in the days when he plied his trade at Truro Cathedral. It’s an unaccompanied piece and I found it most interesting. The harmonic language is quite individual and imparts something of a timeless feel to the music. When the piece lands on a final major-key chord it comes as something of a surprise – but a satisfying surprise. David Bednall’s music is much better known to me and I’ve heard his Noe, noe before. It’s an exuberant piece, full of colour and rhythmic vitality. The piece is given the full treatment by Nethsingha and his choir and also by organist Glen Dempsey, whose brilliant contribution helps to bring this piece and the programme as a whole to a thrilling conclusion.

The personnel of this choir – and, indeed, of any collegiate choir – is in a constant state of flux as students arrive or graduate, meaning alterations to the alto, tenor and bass line-ups. At least that can be planned because mostly such changes will happen just once in an academic year, but who knows when a treble voice will break. For the choirmaster such turnover must bring frustration at times but, much more often, the opportunity to relish the challenges of integrating new singers. On the evidence of what we hear on this disc, Andrew Nethsingha more than surmounts all these challenges: the choir’s sound is consistent – and consistently fine. Here we experience them through BBC recordings of excellent quality. True, there is some background noise but it’s not intrusive and it adds an ambience, I find. The repertoire has been skilfully chosen though if I may express a slight disappointment I wish one or two of the big Advent hymns had been included – there would have been room. The sound of the St John’s choir and congregation singing a majestic hymn such as Lo, he comes with clouds descending, always imparts a frisson, I find. Still, even without such items this disc gives a very good flavour of the excellent Advent music one can hear at St John’s

The notes by Andrew Nethsingha and by Dr Martin Ennis are interesting and informative.

John Quinn

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - A hymn of St. Columba
James Burton (b 1974) - Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), arr. Christopher Robinson (b 1936) - The truth sent from above
Ian Shaw (b 1960) - Adam lay ybounden
Traditional, arr. Stephen .Cleobury (b 1948) - The cherry tree carol
James Long (b 1987) - Vigilate
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c 1525-1594) - Fuit homo missus a Deo
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) - This is the record of John
Malcolm Archer (b 1952) - The linden tree carol
John Joubert (b 1927) - There is no rose
Tim Watts (b 1979) - The birth of speech
Basque carol arr. Edgar Pettman (1866-1943)- The angel Gabriel from heaven came
Francis Jackson (b 1917) - I know a flower
Alan Bullard (b 1947) - Glory to the Christ Child
Paul Comeau (b 1958) - Lux mundi
Ian Shaw - I sing of a maiden
Traditional, arr. David Willcocks (1919-2915) - Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
Judith Bingham (b 1952) - The clouded heaven
David Bednall (b 1979) - Noe, noe


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