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Advent Live – Volume 2
Glen Dempsey (organ - 2018); James Anderson-Besant (organ - 2019), Timothy Ravalde (organ - 2008)
Anne Denholm (harp); Jakob Lindberg (archlute); Ignacio Mañá Mesas(soprano saxophone)
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge / Andrew Nethsingha
rec. live, 30 November 2008, 25 November 2018, 1 December 2019, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge. DDD
Texts & English translations included

Two years ago I gave a warm welcome to a CD by Andrew Nethsingha and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, entitled Advent Live. This was a compendium of pieces recorded at the Advent Sunday Carol Services in the College chapel between 2014 and 2017. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this follow-up release. This mainly comprises music that was heard at the 2018 and 2019 service but one item, the John McCabe anthem, comes from the 2008 service. Since 2008 the College has regularly commissioned new pieces for these services and four such items are included in this present programme. When I reviewed the previous volume, I expressed a minor disappointment that none of the great Advent hymns, such as Lo! he comes with clouds descending, that grace these services had been included. I’m sure it’s entirely coincidental that this majestic hymn and another, Hark, the glad sound, are included this time round but it’s great to hear them.

In fact. Let’s start with the hymns. Lo! he comes with clouds descending is sung to that great tune, Helmsley. This recording comes from the 2019 service and organist James Anderson-Besant gives us the full organ in all its majesty to introduce the hymn. In a thoughtful note, in which he discusses how he compiled this programme, Andrew Nethsingha explains that the organist needs to play loudly in order to leads those members of the congregation who are farthest away. He comments that this “results in a less-than-ideal balance on a recording”. I know what he means but, with the greatest respect, on this occasion I disagree. We hear replicated the sound that one would experience on the radio broadcast of the service or, I suspect, if one were lucky enough to be amongst the congregation Whenever I have listened to the St John’s service broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 – the annual broadcast date back to 1981 – the sound of the organ in pleno, choir and congregation in these great hymns – and in this one particularly – always create a frisson and that’s just what I get here. Indeed, the embracing communal sound is all the more moving to hear right now when the Covid emergency has stilled the sound of full-throated congregational singing. An added pleasure is provided by the descant written by one of Nethsingha’s distinguished predecessors at St. John’s, Christopher Robinson. It’s a very fine descant and the trebles ensure that it cuts right through the very full musical texture.

The other hymn is somewhat different. Hark, the glad sound was the stimulus for one of the four College commissions included here. Judith Bingham’s introduction to the hymn involves the choir and a soprano saxophone. Her introduction has the choir singing some words from the hymn and their music frequently includes fragments of Bristol, the tune to which the hymn is usually sung, as here. The independent saxophone part contributes a strong, plaintive counterpoint to the choir’s music. Bingham gradually screws up the excitement and the tension until you think the music is going to burst. And burst it does when James Anderson-Besant suddenly begins the hymn on the full organ (3:23). It’s a thrilling moment - a real coup - and then, thus launched by Bingham, the hymn itself comes as a great affirmation by the choir and congregation.

The soprano saxophone also has a key role in another commissioned work, Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara ecce intonat. I’ve heard this piece before (review); I liked it then and, if anything, I’m more impressed now. Jackson uses the saxophone as a kind of metaphor for the Voice crying in the Wilderness. The music he writes for the instrument is often wild and its deliberately penetrating tone is a superb foil for the choral writing. The result is a highly effective and dramatic setting. Dramatic, too, is John McCabe’s The last and greatest Herald which sets a text about St John the Baptist. McCabe makes extensive use of the famous Trompete Real stop on the organ – a stop also used to great effect by Tippett in the set of Evening Canticles which he wrote for St John’s. I hadn’t heard McCabe’s arresting piece before but I’m glad I have experienced it now. The fourth college commission also takes up the theme of the Baptist. Cecilia McDowall’s A Prayer to St John the Baptist combines medieval words with lines by Thomas Merton in an ingenious textural construct. The music is underpinned by lively dance-like rhythms in both the choir and organ parts. It’s a most effective composition.

The programme includes a few familiar items such as those by Pärt, Goldschmidt, Britten and Howells. The latter is an appropriate choice given Howells’ war time service as the college’s Acting Organist. This performance of A Spotless Rose includes an especially fine rendition by Simon Grant of the celebrated baritone solo. All these pieces receive lovely performances and I’m glad they were included.

Elsewhere, however, the selection is often unexpected – and therefore highly stimulating. For example, the Telemann piece which comes from a collection of no less than 144 sacred songs which he published in 1727. Here the solo voice part is sung by a group of trebles. They do a splendid job and the effect is completely charming, especially since their performance is sensitively accompanied by Jakob Lindberg, who plays the archlute. Also unexpected was the Hugo Wolf piece. This is one of Six Sacred Songs(1881), all to texts by Eichendorff. I’d not heard this before but I liked it. The piece is early Wolf and, at this stage in his composing career, grounded pretty firmly in German musical tradition. A similar grounding is evident in Hugo Distler’sEs ist ein Ros entsprungen. Distler’s is a sad story; his efforts to maintain sacred music in Nazi Germany led to harassment from the regime and this eventually drove him to take his own life. This short, touching piece, beautifully sung, demonstrates a great love for and pride in the German choral tradition.

Andrew Nethsingha has assembled a discerning and stimulating programme. His choices are not only musically satisfying but also convey the ambience of the Advent Carol Service; in that connection, I’m glad that he has included four of the plainchant Great ‘O’ antiphons, which are always sung as part of the liturgy. Throughout the disc, the performances are uniformly excellent and the recording, from three different services, are consistent in quality and give a fine representation of Advent Sunday in St John’s College Chapel.

The documentation is excellent. In addition to thoughtful essays by Andrew Nethsingha and by Rev. Mark Oakley, the Dean of St John’s, there is a very fine and informative set of notes on the music by Dr Martin Ennis.

Goodness knows whether an Advent Sunday Carol Service will be possible in St John’s College Chapel in 2020, or what form such a service might take. At the very least the dictates of social distancing are bound to preclude the sort of congregational liturgy that is traditional. We must hope fervently for better times when Advent 2021 comes around. In the meantime, this splendid CD will fill the gap – and will remind us all of what we are missing.

John Quinn

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) I am the day
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) Bŏgŏroditsye Dyevo
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose
Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) A Prayer to St John the Baptist *
Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962)Vox clara ecce intonat *
John McCabe (1939-2015)The last and greatest Herald *
TraditionalAntiphons – O Wisdom; O Adonai
Otto Goldschmidt (1829-1907)A tender shoot
Hugo Distler (1908-1942)Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Anthony Milner (1925-2002)Out of your sleep
Judith Bingham (b. 1952) An introduction to Hark, the glad sound*
Hymn – Hark, the glad sound Tune: Bristol
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) There is no rose
Traditional Antiphons – O Root of Jesse; O Key of David
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)Ach so laß von mir dich finden
Paul Manz (1919-2009)E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come
Traditional;arr. Reginald Jacques (1894-1969)The Linden Tree Carol
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976);arr. Julius Harrison (1885-1963) Deo gracias
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) Einklang
Hymn – Lo! he comes with clouds descending
Tune: Helmsley; Descant: Christopher Robinson (b. 1936)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm,der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 661

* Commissioned by the College Choir

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