Nicola Corbishley (soprano), Patrick Craig (countertenor), William Morley (trumpet), Colin Huehns (erhu), Jeremiah Stephenson, Gordon Thorpe, Benjamin Newlove (organ)
The Choir of St Michael’s Cornhill/Jonathan Rennert
rec. 2019, St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, London
REGENT REGCD550 [66:03]
Subtitled “A Century of Musical Innovation”, this is a showcase of the semi-professional, 13-voice mixed choir of the historic church of St Michael’s, Cornhill, deep in the heart of the City of London. Jonathan Rennert has been its Director of Music since 1979, and we might also see this as the celebration of his amazing 40-year tenure. Fittingly the programme includes one of his own compositions – a luminous, tonally ambiguous chant for Psalm 79 (“O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance”) – as well as several by one of his predecessors, Harold Darke, whose tenure at St Michael’s lasted all of half a century. Other items come from close associates of Darke; Vaughan Williams who, Rennert tells us in his engaging booklet notes, “used to sit in the churchwardens’ pew on the south side at the back of the church”, and Bax, whose sturdy setting of the Magnificat (with a complex organ part masterly handled here by Benjamin Newlove, organ scholar at St Michael’s) was composed for Darke’s choir in 1949. More recent works come from Philip Moore, whose Here rests his head was first performed in St Michaels in 2016, Gareth Treseder, one of the two tenors in the choir, and Rhiannon Randle, who is Composer-in-Residence at St Michael’s.
Several of the pieces here have long established themselves in the choral repertory, and in general the thin, chamber-like quality of the St Michael’s choir, a world apart from the smooth, homogenous tone of a conventional English cathedral choir, initially seems too lightweight to offer the richness and variety of sound we have become used to. In the case of Vaughan Williams’ Lord, thou hast been our refuge, with its two choirs, one distantly intoning the hymn tune St Anne behind the recitative-like commentary from the other, this thinner sound pays great dividends, and what usually comes across as a kind of English Protestant flexing of muscles, is revealed as a subtle and highly atmospheric work. William Morley crowns the final, centre-stage statement of the hymn tune with a suitably graceful trumpet solo. Also impressive on its own terms is the highly articulate and fiery account of A Vision of Aeroplanes, robustly supported by one St Michael’s previous organ scholars, Jeremiah Stephenson, and revealing some marvellously agile singing from the St Michael’s Choir.
The two pieces by Rhiannon Randle, as might be expected, fit the choir like a glove. The unaccompanied Da pacem Domine, written shortly before this recording was made, may at times seem derivative of other motets in the English choral tradition (Stanford rises, unbidden, to mind), but it is none the less a beautiful and effective setting of this tranquil Latin text. Her memoria is an altogether different cup of tea. We begin with the distant tolling of the church’s bell, before the weirdly sinuous sound of the erhu (Chinese fiddle) introduces a whiff of the Orient. From a static set of choral clusters, solo voices emerge and intermingle with the erhu in a kind of improvisatory trance, the whole thing creating an aura of other-worldliness which only very occasionally seems unnaturally contrived. For the most part this is an atmospheric and effective piece which certainly supports the idea behind the recording’s sub-title. And, as Rennert writes, is “unlike anything that the Church of England had previously encountered”.
Equally unexpected is Gareth Treseder’s setting of words which more customarily are set as a reflective prayer. He takes the tenor solo himself in this perky little close-harmony number, which wanders easily through all sorts of keys and rhythmic patterns, but suits the choir perfectly.
Behind everything is the firm and discreet hand of Jonathan Rennert, who draws much subtlety and grace from his singers, never forces them to make a bigger sound than is natural for them, and has an unerring sense of what works musically in the church’s glowing acoustic, beautifully captured by Gary Cole in this fine recording.
Harold Darke (1888-1976): The eyes of all [1:39]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Lord, Thou hast been our refuge [8:52]
Harold Darke: Even such is time [3:03]; Be strong and of a good courage [5:35]; O gladsome light [3:17]
Rhiannon Randle (b.1993): Da pacem Domine [3:56]
Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Magnificat [5:26]
Jonathan Rennert (b.1952): Psalm 79 [4:32]
Philip Moore (b.1943): Here rests his head [4:58]
Gareth Treseder (b.1985): Jesu, the very thought of Thee [2:53]
Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Vision of Aeroplanes [8:51]
Rhiannon Randle: memoria [6:53]
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Valiant-for-Truth [6:07]