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Gerre HANCOCK (1934-2012)
A Song to the Lamb (1973) [4:09]
Jubilate (2005) [3:46]
Infant holy, Infant lowly (1975) [2:42]
To Serve (2006) [3:33]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis: The Saint Thomas Service (1989) [8:14]
Air for Organ (1960) [3:22]
Missa Resurrectionis (1976) [7:48]
The Lord will surely come (1999) [5:20]
You are one in Christ Jesus [5:32]
How dear to me (2007) [7:22]
Come ye lofty, come ye lowly (1998) [2:43]
Kindle the gift of God (1974) [4:12]
Judge eternal (1988) [5:41]
Psalm 8 [4:04]
Thomas Tertius NOBLE (1867-1953)
Ora Labora [2:03]
Variations on Ora Labora (2001) [6:21]
Deep River (1980) [3:16]
The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York/Jeremy Filsell
The Saint Thomas Brass
Benjamin Sheen & Nicholas Quardokus (organ)
rec. February 2020, St Thomas Church, New York City.
Texts included

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys occupies an important place in the Anglican Communion in the USA. Not only is it a pre-eminent ensemble in terms of its quality but, uniquely, it is now the only remaining choir in the USA that is associated with a choir school. That school was founded in 1919 and continues its work to this day.

I’ve heard several CDs by the choir, mostly conducted by John Scott who was Organist and Director of Music at the church from 2004 until his untimely death in 2015. I also had the opportunity once to hear them sing in situ when I attended the Festval of Nine Lessons and Carols at Saint Thomas’s in December 2019. On that occasion Gerre Hancock’s arrangement of Infant holy, Infant lowly was sung and I was delighted to find it included on this disc.

This CD is a handsome tribute to Gerre Hancock, who served as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Saint Thomas’s from 1971 until 2004, after which he moved back to Austin in his native Texas to become professor of organ and sacred music at the University of Texas, which post he retained until his death. In a warmly-worded booklet essay, Jeremy Filsell, Hancock’s current successor (since April 2019), writes of his achievements. Not the least of these was reviving the fortunes of the choir school, working in close alliance with the then Rector of Saint Thomas’s; prior to Hancock’s arrival the school “looked decidedly fragile”, we learn. The robust health of the establishment today is confirmed by the fact that the choir includes no fewer than twenty trebles (on this recording) plus a further 9 probationers and non-singing choristers. There are 5 countertenors, 5 tenors and 7 basses in the choir
As you’d expect, some of the pieces included on this programme were written for Hancock’s choir but in fact, only five of the pieces (and perhaps the psalm chant) are Saint Thomas pieces; the rest were composed, mostly to commission, for a variety of other American churches, something which attests to the respect in which Hancock was widely held.

The Saint Thomas pieces include the aforementioned arrangement of Infant holy, Infant lowly. This is a pleasing, very natural-sounding arrangement of the familiar Polish carol melody. The Missa Resurrectionis is a Missa brevis (there is no Credo) and as its timing suggests, it’s a very concise setting. It’s also highly effective and I like the way Hancock deploys the brass instruments and timpani sparingly yet tellingly. Kindle the gift of God is a most interesting piece. The start is subdued, almost dark, but gradually the music grows in power until an imposing climax is achieved. From that point, the setting recedes to a mysterious ending. I’m not sure if Hancock’s chant for Psalm 8 was specifically composed for Saint Thomas’s but it was certainly part of the psalter during his time there. The chant is a good one and every third verse is set in fauxbourdon. There’s one more Saint Thomas piece but I’ll come back to that.

Before we leave the music composed for Saint Thomas’s it’s appropriate to mention the one musical item on the programme which is not by Gerre Hancock. One of his predecessors was Thomas Tertius Noble, possibly the first but certainly not the last British organist to serve Saint Thomas’s. Noble was Organist of York Minster from 1898 until 1913 when he made what was in those days, surely, an unlikely career move to New York. He held the post of Organist and Choirmaster at St Thomas from 1913 to 1943 and it was early in his time there that the choir school was founded. Ora Labora is the tune that he wrote for the hymn ‘Come, labor on’ which became the Choir School hymn. The notes describe it as a “stirring” tune and that’s certainly how it comes across here, sung in forthright unison by the men of the choir. But what impresses as much as the tune itself is the thrilling sound of the pleno organ accompaniment. Only two of the hymn’s four verses are sung, and the second of them is here enhanced by majestic organ harmonies and a descant furnished by Gerre Hancock. The descant is played using a reed stop and it cuts through the textures wonderfully.

The hymn serves as the appetiser for Hancock’s organ variations on the tune and it’s very intelligent to place the hymn first because the melody may not be familiar to all. Hancock’s piece consists of the theme, elaborately dressed, followed by five variations. All of the variations are enterprising and they’re all securely anchored to the tune. The final variation presents the theme in the pedals (coupled to the Great?) while on the manuals exciting toccata-like figurations are played; it’s a rather splendid way to end a resourceful short piece. The other solo organ piece is Air for Organ which Hancock dedicated to the lady who was shortly to become his wife. It’s a good, well-constructed piece in ABA form.

Among the other pieces, I was very taken with A song to the Lamb, another piece which includes brass and timpani. The opening is very imposing, especially in the resonant acoustic of Saint Thomas’s, and the writing also demonstrates Hancock’s ability to write memorable legato vocal lines. It’s a celebratory composition and an ideal opening to the programme. Also impressive is Judge Eternal. This is a hymn anthem. It seems to me to be a perceptive musical response to the chosen text. The music features fine melodic lines and good word painting. How dear to me is a piece that’s big in nature if not in duration. The choral textures are full and the part writing is complex but never clouded. Brass and timpani are used with discretion to add important extra colour.

I said there was one more Saint Thomas piece on the programme. Right at the end we hear Hancock’s a cappella arrangement of Deep River. I’ve heard this excellent close harmony arrangement before. Apparently, it was sung (along with the Requiem of Duruflé) at the Requiem Mass for Gerre Hancock in Saint Thomas’s in 2012. It must have been moving to hear it then, especially because prior to the service his ashes had been interred underneath the spot in the quire from which he had conducted the choir for over 30 years. It’s a beautiful conclusion to this tribute programme.

There isn’t a piece on this programme in which the music is anything less than expertly crafted. Furthermore, Gerre Hancock consistently evidences a fine feeling for the texts that he set and also a deep and very practical knowledge of how to write effectively for a choir – and for the organ, too. On this disc the Saint Thomas’s choir sings extremely well; clearly Jeremy Filsell has continued the Saint Thomas tradition of expert choral training. The organ playing is of a similarly high standard, as are the contributions of the brass ensemble.

The technical side of the recording was in the expert hands of Adrian Peacock (producer) and David Hinitt (engineer). They have conveyed the sound of the choir – and of the accompanying instruments – very successfully. Furthermore, they have contrived to give us a fine sense of the resonance of the church’s acoustic without sacrificing clarity. The booklet, which includes very good notes by Jeremy Filsell, is ideal.

John Quinn

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