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Magnificat Volume 2
Sacred Choral Works
Glen Dempsey & James Anderson-Besant (organ)
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2019, St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK
Texts included.
SIGNUM SIGCD667 [74:22]

Last year I greatly enjoyed a disc entitled ‘Magnificat’ by Andrew Nethsingha and the Choir of St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge (review). I’m delighted that they’ve now released a follow-up collection. As before, Mr Nethsingha has chosen a programme that combines settings of the Canticles by such luminaries of the tradition as Howells, Sumsion and Jackson, with much more modern fare by the likes of Giles Swayne and Julian Anderson. The latter’s Evening Canticles make the collection as up-to-date as could be: they were recorded within weeks of their first performance.

I should begin by saying a word about the documentation. St John’s releases are always extensively and expertly documented but this present release is an especially fine example. Not only are there detailed, expert notes by Andrew Nethsingha, on which I’m sure I shall draw heavily in the course of this review, but there’s also an essay on the scriptural and liturgical background to the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. The author of this fascinating essay is Dr Rowan Williams, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12) and then Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge (2013-20). Dr Williams is a renowned Bible scholar and his fine essay wears its erudition lightly.

The present programme opens with one of the great classics of the genre: Howells’ Collegium Regale Evening Canticles. In the Magnificat the St John’s trebles and altos sing the opening section marvellously. Their singing is delicate and evidences great care for both music and words. The beauty of their delivery means that the robust music at ‘He hath shewed strength with His arm’ makes the greatest possible contrast before Howells’ setting reverts to feminine, mystical music. The splendid doxology soars, as it should. In the Nunc Dimittis we hear a fine tenor soloist: Gopal Kambo’s sappy timbre is ideally suited to the music.

The contrast between Howells and the setting of the Magnificat by Giles Swayne could hardly be greater. I’ve heard Swayne’s setting, which is in Latin, several times before and it’s still not quite to my personal taste. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t admire the music. Andrew Nethsingha’s notes are probably the most thorough discussion of the piece that I’ve yet encountered and he makes clear the amount of thought and compositional skill that lies behind the setting. He also observes, very justly, that the Church of England “needs a good shake-up now and again”. Swayne’s music is ebullient and vigorous and so is the present performance.

Sydney Watson served as organist of Christ Church, Oxford from 1955 to 1970 but his Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in E dates from the period (1933-38) when he was organist of New College, Oxford. These Canticles may not break any new ground but that in no way diminishes their worth or appeal. They are expertly written for the voices, and the melodies and harmonies give equal pleasure to listeners and singers throughout. The Magnificat’s doxology is strong and confident. The Nunc Dimittis is especially attractive. The setting is tranquil and floats along serenely. To complement this music, Watson, quite rightly, does not reprise the doxology of the Magnificat; rather, he pens different music, which is soft and ethereal – and very beautiful.

In its way Walton’s Chichester Service delivered another “shake-up” to the Church of England in the sense that this is music that surely owes its genesis to the concert hall, though it is informed also by Walton’s boyhood experiences as a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford. The service was commissioned by Walter Hussey, that renowned Anglican priest and patron of the arts, when he was Dean of Chichester Cathedral; the commission was to mark the 900th anniversary of the cathedral in 1975. I referred to the music’s concert hall genesis: Waltonian fingerprints are all over the Magnificat in particular; you can hear echoes of Belshazzar’s Feast several times and jagged rhythms often hold sway, impelling the music forward excitingly. Along the way there are also several instances where the composer’s bittersweet lyricism comes to the fore. The Nunc Dimittis is a different kettle of fish with its dark, suspenseful opening sung by the unison basses, accompanied rather ominously by the organ. The doxology seems to offer a reprise of the music heard in the Magnificat but, as Andrew Nethsingha points out, the music is subtly different, ending quietly.

Lennox Berkeley’s Canticles were also written for Chichester Cathedral, though not at the behest of Walter Hussey, who had retired three years earlier. Andrew Nethsingha comments that Berkeley’s music creates “a timeless, meditative atmosphere”. He and his fine choir bring out that atmosphere to excellent effect; I admired very much the singing of solo treble Alfred Harrison in the Magnificat. The music to which both Canticles are set is beautiful, thoughtful and sensitive. Nethsingha’s comment hits the nail squarely on the head: “there is no grand-standing, no drawing attention to one’s actions, just calmly making the world fairer”. He was writing of the Magnificat, but the description could equally serve the ‘Nunc’.

Evidencing the care with which this programme has been devised, Andrew Nethsingha says that he placed Herbert Sumsion’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G very precisely in the order of things in the hope that it could serve as an “intermezzo”. That seems to me to be very perceptive. The Canticles were composed four years after Sumsion began his long service (1928-67) as Organist of Gloucester Cathedral. The music is delightful. I’d also describe it as modest – in the very best sense of the word – in that the music is at all times at the service of the text. It’s expertly crafted but it’s also very evocative. As I listened to this sensitive and skilled performance it seemed to me that the music is perfectly attuned to the glorious architecture of Gloucester Cathedral, especially on a sunlit Sunday afternoon. Of course, that’s a space which Nethsingha knows well; he was one of Sumsion’s successors as Director of Music at Gloucester (2002-07).

The programme goes on to honour another distinguished, long-serving English cathedral musician, namely Francis Jackson, who was Organist of York Minster from 1946 to 1982. I presume that Jackson’s Canticles were composed for his choir at York and with the huge acoustic of that wonderful minster in mind. The Magnificat is wonderfully fluent initially but Jackson’s music for ‘He hath shewed strength with His arm’ is very dramatic. This passage and a bold setting of the doxology would have resonated excitingly in the York acoustic, as is the case here. For the Jackson settings, James Anderson-Besant is at the St John’s organ console and the sound he gets from the instrument at the end of the doxology is thrilling. Jackson’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis is gently luminous at first but gradually the music builds in volume and intensity until the reprise of the Magnificat’s doxology is entirely natural.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat is the only a cappella piece on the programme. The positioning of this piece on the disc is, once again, very shrewd. There is nothing else like Pärt’s music in this sequence and it acts as a bridge between the more traditional Canticle settings and Julian Anderson’s new music. Pärt’s slow, hypnotic music demands expertly controlled singing and that’s exactly what we experience here. Though, superficially, the music may appear somewhat restricted in its expressive means, in fact Pärt deploys a wide range of choral colours and textures and the result is gently mesmerising. There’s no hiding place in this music but Andrew Nethsingha’s choir have no need of such a refuge; their performance is extremely impressive.

Finally, Nethsingha gives a first recording to a brand-new setting of the Canticles by Julian Anderson. I’ve heard quite a few of this composer’s colourfully-imagined orchestral scores and have found them very interesting. I’ve not previously associated him very much with choral music, though I have heard and enjoyed his Four American Choruses (2002), both live and on disc (review). The St John’s Service was written for this choir and as I mentioned earlier, the present recording was made just weeks after they had first sung the music in public. The opening of the Magnificat is spectacularly energetic and a lot of the music that follows is rhythmically vigorous, not least in the doxology. Anderson’s setting is full of interest; the harmonies and colours he employs are often arresting and he does some effective word painting. The Nunc Dimittis is intriguing. The organ accompaniment is quite sparse and the music is characterised by hushed tension. The assertive writing in the doxology therefore comes as something of a surprise but the music soon subsides to a hushed ending. This is a fascinating set of Canticles, which challenge not just the performers and the listener but also – in a wholly constructive and respectful way – preconceptions about musical settings of the Evening Canticles. I’m glad that they’ve achieved an early and, one must presume, authoritative recording and I hope that other cathedral and collegiate choirs will investigate them.

This is a wide-ranging and highly stimulating collection of settings of the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’, superbly performed. The St John’s choir is one of the UK’s leading collegiate choirs and this latest recording shows them on top form. As well as their expert and committed singing the contributions of the college’s two Organ Scholars (at that time) are excellent. Glen Dempsey played for most of the pieces with James Anderson-Besant taking over for the Francis Jackson settings. Simon Eadon’s engineering is a conspicuous success. He’s recorded the choir clearly and the organ sound is very well-defined. Best of all, he’s achieved an ideal balance between the instrument and the singers, and he’s used the chapel’s acoustic intelligently. As I’ve already said, the documentation is very superior in its quality.

This disc is in every way a worthy follow-up to the previous release of ‘Mags’ and ‘Nuncs’. I’m sure Andrew Nethsingha will be wary of taking the pitcher to the well too often, especially since I’m sure there is a lot of other music that he’d like to record. That said, it would be nice if one day a third survey of Evening Canticles could be put on the choir’s recording agenda.

John Quinn

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Regale, 1945) [9:34]
Giles SWAYNE (b. 1946)
Magnificat I (1982) [4:09]
Sydney WATSON (1903-1991)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in E (pub. 1937) [6:19]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Chichester Service, 1974) [6:24]
Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Chichester Service, 1980) [11:13]
Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G (1932) [7:21]
Francis JACKSON (b. 1917)
Evening Service in G (1952) [10:23]
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Magnificat (1989) [8:22]
Julian ANDERSON (b. 1967)
Evening Canticles (St John’s Service, 2018-19) [10:28]

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