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Laura van der Heijden (cello); Glen Dempsey (organ)
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2018, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, UK
Texts and English translations included SIGNUM CLASSICSSIGCD567 [73:51]
St John’s College, Cambridge has a substantial Victorian chapel, designed by the noted Gothic Revival architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). This CD is released to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the Chapel on 12 May, 1869. By a happy chance this is also the choir’s 100th recording; their first, a disc entitled ‘Hear my prayer’ was released on the Argo label 60 years ago, in April 1959. That recording, which was part of George Guest’s legacy with the choir, was discussed by Brian Wilson in one of his Roundup features in summer 2017, when Brian drew attention to various ways of acquiring that recording.
To mark this plethora of anniversaries Andrew Nethsingha has assembled a discerningly-chosen programme of fifteen items, one of which represents each of the decades since the chapel was consecrated.
The programme might have opened with one of the pieces that has an arresting organ introduction – the Finzi, for example – but Mr Nethsingha is more subtle than that. Instead, we hear Sir William Harris’s magnificent a cappella anthem for double choir, Fair is the heaven. This is wonderful, rich music and in the present performance the two choirs are nicely differentiated. The tone of the trebles provides a nice cutting edge which ensures that the textures don’t cloy. The performance is excellent and the rapt end of the piece is particularly well managed.
I was thrilled to see that Mr Nethsingha has selected a piece by Ned Rorem. This composer has written a great number of very fine songs but his choral music is too little known. Sing my soul, His wondrous love is a beautiful homophonic setting and an excellent example both of Rorem’s ability to engage with words and of his fastidious musical craft. The piece receives a lovely performance.
Finzi’s God is gone up offers us the first chance on this disc to hear the chapel’s 1994 Mander organ in action. Organist Glen Dempsey announces the instrument’s presence in a thrilling fashion in the triumphant fanfare that opens the piece. Throughout the performance his contribution is superb – I love the exciting way he uses the instrument’s reed stops – and the choir is ardent in the outer sections, voicing genuine jubilation. In the more relaxed central section, there’s fine fluidity in the performance.
Benjamin Britten is the only composer who features twice in the programme. His Hymn to the Virgin offers a wonderful contrast after the Finzi. And how amazing to recall that this lovely and assured composition is the work of a schoolboy! The recording uses the acoustic space of the chapel to fine effect, not least in reporting the distant semi-chorus. Later on, Britten’s Jubilate in C is exuberantly delivered.
In Justorum animae Stanford set eloquent words from the Book of Wisdom with consummate refinement. The motet was probably written with the acoustic of Trinity Chapel, Cambridge in mind – Stanford was organist there at the time – but it sounds equally lovely in St John’s Chapel.
Works by two British composers represent the 1980s and 1990s.The deceptively simple textures of Tavener’s The Lamb and its appealing melodic invention – again deceptively simple – constitute an inspired response to Blake’s lines. Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars is an innovative anthem. As he so often does, Dove demonstrates a fine feeling for choral textures while the organ part, including passages of light, luminous dancing music, is very exciting. Once again, Glen Dempsey is in fine form here.
Poulenc’s lovely and bittersweet Salve Regina is very nicely done. That’s a piece I’ve heard many times but Christopher Robinson’s Jesu, grant me this, I pray was completely new to me. It was a graceful gesture on Andrew Nethsingha’s part to include a piece by his distinguished predecessor-but-one but the piece would have justified its inclusion on musical grounds alone, even if there were no St John’s connection. Robinson’s piece flows beautifully and has as its basis a lovely melody which is imaginatively harmonised. This little gem is receiving its first recording here.
Music by a recent Director of Music is followed by a piece composed by a very recent alumnus of the college. Alex Woolf graduated as recently as 2016, the year in which his O vos omnes was written. It was written for the St John’s choir and it’s scored for male voices only. The harmonies are dark, as befits the text – it’s a Responsory from the liturgy of Matins on Holy Saturday – and often complex. Having male altos on the top line adds plangency to the sound of the ensemble which is most affecting. This is an excellent piece.
Going back from the twenty-first century to the nineteenth, it would be hard to imagine a more apposite choice for this programme than Bruckner’s Locus Iste because the text set by Bruckner is that of the Gradual of the Mass for the Dedication of a Church. Even more appropriately, Bruckner wrote it for the dedication of the votive chapel in Linz Cathedral, which took place in 1869, the self-same year as the dedication of the St John’s chapel. The St John’s choir sings this piece very well indeed. The blend is excellent and they bring concentration and focus to their performance.
Besides the Christopher Robinson piece there’s another work that here receives its first recording: Giles Swayne’s Adam lay ibounden. This is ingeniously scored for two choirs, a solo bass (the appropriately named James Adams) and solo cello (Laura van der Heijden). In addition, a treble soloist (Lewis Cobb) makes a brief contribution towards the end. All three soloists make strong contributions and the choir sings Swayne’s challenging music incisively. Swayne has written a very atmospheric, dark piece. I found it interesting but it’s music that I respect rather than love.
I find myself on surer ground with the Cherubic Hymn from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, sung in Russian. The rich, luminous textures of the opening pages are admirably voiced here – the choir’s collective control is excellent. There’s real ardour in the singing at ‘that we may receive the King of All’ and then beauty of utterance returns for the close of the piece.
We end with Parry’s glorious Milton setting, Blest pair of sirens. Once more, Glen Dempsey commands our attention as he majestically delivers the organ introduction and his playing throughout is inspired – I relish the use of the trumpet stop after the choir has sung ‘their loud, uplifted angel-trumpets blow’. The choir sings superbly and while Nethsingha doesn’t rush the piece his tempi are sufficiently forward-moving – and the performance has such inner energy – that there’s no question of cobwebs needing to be blown away. This is a piece which, normally, I’d prefer to hear sung by a larger SATB choir. However, the smaller all-male choir is able to impart clarity to the texture. Thus, every line can be heard in the marvellous contrapuntal passage that starts at ‘To live with him and sing in endless morn of light’. This passage, which builds thrillingly, should really stir the listener and Mr Nethsingha ensures that it does, the performance mixing urgency and grandeur in ideal measure. The choir are truly fervent in the last couple of minutes of the piece. This performance provides a magnificent conclusion to the programme.
Throughout this programme the St John’s College choir is on top form and I admire very much the way they can deliver a programme that mixes such a great variety of musical styles. Andrew Nethsingha has clearly prepared them expertly and I congratulate him not just for this but also for the perceptive and interesting programme he has chosen. The recording was in the safe hands of producer Chris Hazell and engineer Simon Eadon. They’ve done an excellent job. The choir is beautifully recording while the organ is thrillingly caught by the microphones. The only very small point to mention is that on the tracks involving the organ we hear wind noise from the instrument for a few seconds before and after the music.
The documentation is outstandingly good. In addition to texts and translations there‘s a very good introductory note by Andrew Nethsingha. Not only are there comprehensive and perceptive notes about the music by Dr Martin Ennis but also there’s an excellent extended essay about the Chapel itself by Dr Frank Salmon FSA, who was President of St John’s College between 2015 and 2019.
It would be hard to imagine a finer celebration of the 150th anniversary of St John’s College Chapel.
Contents Sir William Harris (1883-1973) Fair is the heaven (1925) Ned Rorem (b. 1923) Sing my soul, His wondrous love (1955) Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) God is gone up (1951) Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Hymn to the Virgin (1930/1934) Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Justorum animae (ca 1888) Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) The Lamb (1982) Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995) Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941) Christopher Robinson (b. 1936) Jesu, grant me this, I pray (1985) Alex Woolf (b. 1995) O vos omnes (2016) Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Jubilate in C (1961) Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) Locus Iste (1869) Giles Swayne (b. 1946) Adam lay ibounden (2009) Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Cherubic Hymn (1910) Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) Blest pair of sirens (1887)