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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in A (1880) [11:53]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (The Second Service) (1972) [11:13]
Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A (1959) [8:11]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Gloucester Service) 1946) [11:49]
Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Truro Service) (2001) [7:36]
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense) (1961) [7:55]
Glen Dempsey (organ)
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2018, St. John’s College, Cambridge, UK
Texts included.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are sung or said daily at the service of Evensong. As such, settings of the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ are the staples of a choir such as that of St. John’s College, Cambridge. In assembling this collection of settings of the evening canticles by six composers, Andrew Nethsingha has assembled a programme which is not only musically satisfying in its own right but which also abounds in connections.

In terms of these connections Stanford is arguably the “odd man out”. He was, of course strongly connected with Cambridge University but his colleges were Queen’s and then Trinity. Kenneth Leighton’s connection to St John’s is a bit firmer, at least in the context of this programme, in that this particular ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ was written in memory of Brian Runnett, the organist killed in a car crash at the tragically young age of 35. At the time of his death Runnett was Organist of Norwich Cathedral but the foundations of his career were laid as an Organ Scholar at St John’s College. The Sumsion and Howells settings recall very directly Andrew Nethsingha’s time as Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral (2002-2007) before taking up his present post at St John’s. Prior to Gloucester, Nethsingha was Organist of Truro Cathedral (1994-2002) during which time he commissioned the canticles from Gabriel Jackson which are included here. Finally, as their Latin title confirms, Tippett’s ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ were composed for St John’s; they were the daring commission of George Guest to mark the college’s 450th anniversary.

Stanford in A allows Nethsingha and his choir – not to mention organist Glen Dempsey – to set out their stall in fine style. In his notes, Nethsingha refers to the “elegant, confident and flowing” nature of the music. Stanford’s fine writing leads the listener on through the text of both canticles while the strongly independent organ part is consistently interesting – when the thrilling trumpet stop caps the ‘Glory be’ the result is particularly arresting. The Nunc Dimittis is very satisfying, both as a composition and performance.

The Leighton canticles contain fine music. After thoughtful start the Magnificat features music of dancing energy. Fittingly for music written to memorialise a virtuoso organist, the organ part of the Magnificat especially is full of inventive interest and Glen Dempsey clearly relishes the writing.

Herbert Sumsion served as Organist of Gloucester Cathedral for 39 years after he succeeded Sir Herbert Brewer on the latter’s death in 1928. His A major canticles are practical in that they make no excessively challenging demands on the singers, yet they are very effective: Sumsion knew his craft. The scale and tone of voice of the music are relatively modest but the settings are very satisfying. I was fascinated to read in the notes that John Sanders, who succeeded Sumsion at Gloucester, felt that the chord of A major, the home key selected by Sumsion for these canticles, resonated in the cathedral better than any other.

Herbert Howells wrote 20 sets of evening canticles and I’d rate the Gloucester Service, one of his earliest, among his finest achievements in the genre, along with the St. Pauls and Collegium regale settings. I’ve had the good fortune to hear the Gloucester canticles on multiple occasions in the building for which they were designed and the music always seems to me to suit the acoustic like a hand inserted into a perfectly fitting glove. They sound equally impressive in the spacious acoustic of St John’s Chapel. I love the way Nethsingha’s trebles float the delicate, feminine opening of the ‘Mag’. That canticle features a good deal of highly effective word painting to which the St John’s choir responds excellently. They make a thrilling sound in the exultant music of the ‘Glory be’, after which the recording makes the most of the deeply satisfying evening glow of the hushed organ conclusion.

Andrew Nethsingha commissioned Gabriel Jackson to write a set of evening canticles for Truro Cathedral. He explains that he was anxious that this commission should avoid the fate of many commissioned works where composers respond to the invitation with brilliant but challenging music which requires so much rehearsal time as to inhibit future performances. Gabriel Jackson managed to fulfil the brief he was given while at the same time producing excellent and inventive music. This is the only a cappella setting on the programme and in it Jackson follows the age-old alternatim principle. The music for one verse is monodic and chant-like, followed by a homophonic verse for full choir; and so that pattern continues, establishing a slightly hypnotic ambience. In both canticles the dynamics are mainly subdued so, in the ‘Nunc’, a sunburst of musical light at the words “To be a light to lighten the gentiles” is both a surprise and a coup. These are novel settings and the St John’s Choir sings them very well.

If the Jackson compositions are novel, Sir Michael Tippett’s canticles are not just unconventional but almost iconoclastic. It was a brave move by George Guest to commission Tippett to write them because the composer was certainly not identified with the Anglican tradition. The results are bold and striking. Much of the choral writing is dramatic but the listener’s attention is especially grabbed by Tippett’s use of the Trompeta Real stop which was incorporated into the design of the new chapel organ in the 1950s at the instigation of George Guest. It’s a stop which may be unique among British church organs. The Magnificat is peppered with flamboyant interjections using this feature and Glen Dempsey clearly relishes the opportunity. The ‘Nunc’ is almost the polar opposite of the ‘Mag’ in that it is restrained and highly atmospheric. A predominant feature is the taxing writing for solo treble. Here the assignment is handled with terrific assurance by Alfred Harrison, his voice ethereal and pure. Meanwhile a lot of the writing for the rest of the choir is chant-like and quite subdued.

Andrew Nethsingha has selected some choice examples of settings of the evening canticles. His choir sings them flawlessly and with great commitment, offering further evidence of why they are so highly regarded among collegiate and cathedral choirs. Glen Dempsey makes telling contributions from the organ loft.

The recorded sound is excellent. Engineer Simon Eadon has done a fine job, recording both the singers and the organ with pleasing clarity and achieving an excellent balance between choir and organ. As for the documentation, Canon Mark Oakley, the Dean of St John’s College, has contributed a valuable essay about the texts of the two canticles. The musical notes have been authored by Andrew Nethsingha who writes about all the settings with outstanding insight. In his essay he says that there is to be a follow-up album and that “there could perhaps be more after that if listeners are enthusiastic.” Having heard this first-rate disc, all I can say in response is ‘Yes, please!’

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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