Evensong Live 2019 - Anthems and Canticles
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge / Sir Stephen Cleobury
Henry Websdale, Dónal McCann (organ)
rec. live, May 2018-May 2019, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Texts and English translations included
KINGS’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE KGS0038 [78:44]
This album is similar to one I reviewed some time ago entitled ‘Evensong Live, 2016’ in that it brings together a number of live recordings of pieces sung at various celebrations of Choral Evensong by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge . This time, though, there are rather more ‘Mags’ and ‘Nuncs’ on the programme. The timing of this present release is surely no coincidence, coming as it does in the immediate wake of the retirement in September 2019 of Sir Stephen Cleobury after 37 years as the College’s Director of Music. Not every item on this disc is conducted by him, however. In the early months of 2019 he had to take some time off for medical reasons and in that time Christopher Robinson, the retired Director of Music “down the road” at St John’s College, served as Interim Associate Director of Music. Robinson conducts the pieces by Rubbra and Maw. Ben Parry, the Assistant Director of Music conducts the Wood Nunc Dimittis.
Though the King’s College choir has a busy concert schedule, I think that there’s a case to be made that an album such as this, or the aforementioned earlier disc, gives us an even better picture of the choir than the discs, admirable though they are, of concert works. Music such as the contents of this particular programme, is, of course, their daily bread. That’s true of items such as the a cappella Weelkes Magnificat, sung with pleasing vitality, or the Wood Nunc Dimittis. Ben Parry builds the latter from a tranquil start to a resplendent concluding ‘Gloria’
Later on, we find settings of the evening canticles from Parry and Stanford. Parry’s spacious Magnificat blossoms in the King’s acoustic and his music is a fine response to the words. The setting includes parts for a solo quartet; all the singers do well but the two treble soloists particularly catch the ear. Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis uses only the tenors and basses, mainly in unison, until the ‘Gloria’: here, the King’s men make a fine showing.
The unaccompanied items, such as the items by Ley and Walton, please in two ways. Firstly, they are well sung, but just as importantly, the recording engineer, Benjamin Sheen has very successfully captured the chapel acoustic round the voices to give an excellent sense of ambience.
Those items are on quite an intimate scale. At the other end of the spectrum we find a piece like Parry’s I was glad. This makes a tremendous opener, the organ ringing out majestically. I wish the excellent documentation had extended to telling us which of the two Organ Scholars played in each item. I don’t know if it was Henry Websdale or Dónal McCann at the console for I was glad but whoever it was does a thrilling job, making the organ sound full-throated yet throttling back the volume sensitively where needed. The choir sings fervently and the all-male sound adds a pleasing edge to Parry’s vocal lines. Incidentally, this performance includes the Coronation acclamations of ‘Vivat’
During his long tenure at King’s Stephen Cleobury was determined to expand the choir’s repertoire. The most notable expression of that, perhaps, has been the string of commissioned pieces for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a tradition which began, I believe, in 1983. However, to adapt a slogan, a commission isn’t just for Christmas and Cleobury has prompted the composition of a number of pieces for other times during the year. One such is Nicholas Maw’s One foot in Eden still, I stand. This was written in 1990 to mark the 550th anniversary of the foundation of King’s College in 1441. Maw sets a poem by Edwin Muir (1887-1959) and I was fascinated to find Emma Cleobury drawing a parallel in her excellent booklet notes, between Muir’s text and the words of the medieval carol, Adam lay yBounden, so memorably set to music by one of Stephen Cleobury’s predecessors, Boris Ord. Maw’s unaccompanied piece is highly challenging but here, under Christopher Robinson’s direction, it’s sung with complete assurance. There are several demanding solo parts in the piece and all the soloists rise to the occasion. Incidentally, I smiled when I read in the booklet that a programme note for a past performance somewhere of Maw’s piece erroneously entitled it ‘On foot in Eden’: we’ve all been there!
The other contemporary piece is Judith Weir’s Ascending into Heaven. This wasn’t a King’s commission – it was written for the St Alban’s International Organ Festival in 1983 – but there’s a strong King’s connection in that Judith Weir was the recipient of one of the earliest Christmas commissions; her Illuminare, Jerusalem is still, in my view, one of the best of all those commissioned pieces. I was astonished to learn that Ascending into Heaven was Weir’s first choral piece. One would not know, so assured and imaginative is her use of choral textures. Like the Maw piece, it’s extremely challenging for the singers and in this case the organist is equally challenged by a virtuoso part – the parallel drawn by Emma Cleobury with Messiaen is a good one. It’s a terrific piece and it’s give a fine performance on this occasion by the choir and organist.
The organ is also a key contributor to Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice. This is the most recent performance on the disc – it was recorded in late May 2019 – so it may well be one of Stephen Cleobury’s last recordings with the choir. If so, it’s a felicitous choice. It’s an appropriate choice too, because Finzi wrote it, at the behest of Rev. Walter Hussey, for St Matthew’s Church, Northampton where Cleobury was Director of Music for three years in the 1970s. Finzi’s setting is wonderful, mixing, according to the demands of Richard Crawshaw’s poetry, reverence and exaltation. That’s entirely fitting for words in celebration of the eucharist. In a splendid performance special credit is due to the organist and also to James Micklethwaite and Charlie Baigent, respectively the tenor and bass soloists in the ‘O soft self-wounding Pelican’ episode. The rapt, wonderfully mellifluous ‘Amen’ brings not only Finzi’s piece but also this well-chosen and varied programme to a very satisfying conclusion.
Throughout this programme the musicians of King’s College, Cambridge are on fine, consistent form. They have been expertly recorded by Benjamin Sheen. His recordings present the organ with impact and the choir with clarity and presence. In addition, his engineering allows the chapel’s resonant acoustic to make just the right contribution. The documentation is very good and includes all the texts as well as highly informative notes by Emma Cleobury. I noticed just one slip in the booklet: it’s implied that Nicholas Maw is still alive; in fact, he died in 2009.
As I indicated, this is a discerningly chosen programme of music, all excellently performed, and it gives a very satisfying overview of Stephen Cleobury’s last academic year in charge of the music at King‘s College, Cambridge
Sir Charles Hubert PARRY: I was glad [7:11]
Henry LEY: A Prayer of King Henry VI [1:41]
Patrick HADLEY: My beloved spake [3:02]
Thomas WEELKES: Short Service: Magnificat [2:27]
Charles WOOD: Nunc Dimittis (Evening Canticles in E-flat No.2) [2:49]
Judith WEIR: Ascending into Heaven [8:01]
William MATHIAS: Jesus College Service, Op.53: Magnificat [4:23]
William BYRD: The Great Service: Nunc Dimittis [4:27]
Sir William WALTON: A Litany ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ [2:48]
Edmund RUBBRA: Magnificat (Evening Canticles in A-flat, Op.65 [4:15]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD: Complete Morning & Evening Service in G, Op.81: Nunc Dimittis [3:25]
Charles WOOD: Oculi omnium [1:30]
Sir Charles Hubert PARRY: Evening Service in D (‘the Great’): Magnificat [8:22]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD: Complete Morning & Evening Service in B-flat, Op.10: Nunc Dimittis [2:56]
Nicholas MAW: One foot in Eden still, I stand [7:01]
Gerald FINZI: Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, Op.26 [14:17]