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Magnificat - Volume 2
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]

A subtle, tantalisingly distant account of the Magnificat from Howells’s Collegium Regale opens this intriguing collection of evening canticles by 20th century composers, and a new setting commissioned by the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, from Julian Anderson. Unlike other compilations of evening canticle settings – for many the epitome of the great Anglican choral tradition – this one, as the title suggests, has a bias towards the longer of the two canticles, and includes settings of the Magnificat from Arvo Pärt and Giles Swayne which do not have a companion setting of the Nunc dimittis.

If anyone might be thinking that this is just another collection of quintessentially English church music, giving us a chance to hear what is best in the Anglican choral evensong without having to go through all that palaver with psalms, prayers, and invocations to God to look after our politicians and monarchy - a kind of sacred easy listening without the periodic need to get down on bended knee - the Swayne Magnificat quickly proves otherwise. It is a kind of Pointillist setting of syllables, popping up around the choir like so many cardboard targets in a shooting range, and as each one gets shot down, the texture thins out until beneath a strangely haunting chorus of high trebles, the lower voices drop from view totally. It is about as far removed from the smooth comfortable idea of an Anglican evensong as you can get, but shows that Andrew Nethsingha’s Cambridge choir is far more than just a very fine chapel choir, but a powerful musical force well able to adapt to musical styles and idioms well outside the kind of thing that they assemble daily in pews to do.

But we do have our smooth, comfortable Anglicanism here, and that comes with Sydney Watson’s setting in E. This used to be one of my favourites, but after Watson’s death in 1991 it has sort of dropped out of favour. Here, with graceful organ accompaniment from Glen Dempsey, and beautifully modulated tones from the whole choir, we have the true flavour of an evensong; peaceful, calm and oozing the tranquillity which comes from an unshaken confidence in a centuries’ old tradition.

As with other Signum classics recordings of the St John’s College Cambridge choir, this comes packed to the rafters with outstanding supporting documentation. Beyond a thoughtful essay from Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, there is a scholarly, but eminently readable, work-by-work analysis of each of the settings, penned by Nethsingha himself, with fascinating insight into the composers, intriguing photographs and manuscript facsimiles, and fascinating connections drawn between them. (Watson, we read, retired from Christ Church, Oxford, “just a decade or so” before Swayne wrote his Magnificat for that choir, and conducted the first performance of William Walton’s The Twelve). Such interlinking of the works on the disc brings a sense of continuity and coherence which might not be apparent from the often abrupt stylistic changes. After all, when we lurch dramatically from the calm pastorality of Watson in E to the angular, acerbic rhythmic irregularities of Walton’s “Chichester” service, we seem to be traversing a divide which goes far beyond the small changes in time and place. Perhaps this is the greatest strength of this particular compilation; that the same texts written for the English church tradition can yield such dramatically different results.

Another strength is the amazing ability of Nethsingha’s St. John’s choir to cope with these vast stylistic changes, and to celebrate them without any sense of trying to coat them with a veneer of Anglican sound. Lennox Berkeley was not part of the Anglican tradition, and his setting of the evening canticles (which, like Walton’s, were written for Chichester Cathedral), perhaps more than any other on this recording, teases out the essence of the words, the sense of mystery and awe as Mary is visited by the archangel Gabriel and told of her impending motherhood, and of Simeon’s deep contentment at knowing that he has seen the hope for the world and can now die in peace. I find it difficult to listen to this setting without thinking of Britten, yet in its obvious religious sincerity, this is something which can only have come from Berkeley’s pen.

Herbert Howells often tailored his church music to the unique qualities of both choir and acoustic at the establishments for which he was writing (Collegium Regale, for example, was moulded around the unique sound of King’s College Cambridge) but in the case of his friend Herbert Sumsion, the unique sound of Gloucester Cathedral so percolated through his creative being (he was organist there for 39 years) that it is just about impossible to listen to his G major Service without images of Gloucester rising unbidden to the surface. The cathedral’s unique and very special acoustic and its warm ambience is inescapable here, as is Sumsion’s own utterly charming humanity and often lively personality.

Only yesterday (as I write this) did a friend send me a picture of Francis Jackson taken that very day when he had visited him at his home in York. Now 103 years old, he stands as the sprightly Grand Old Man of English cathedral music and can look back on a career which not only did much to make York Minster, where he was organist for 36 years, one of the country’s leading cathedral choirs, but enriched the repertory of all organists and choirs with some splendid music. Arguably his finest contribution to the repertory is his service in G, which is in the repertory of every single cathedral, collegiate and major church choir in the land, and beyond. Here is a choir which has obviously sung this time and time again, yet beyond the superb polish and instinctive flow, they also bring a measure of freshness, as if marvelling at each new idea as the music unfolds in its deliciously leisurely way.

It was in the year that the Berlin Wall came down (1989), that Arvo Pärt wrote his Magnificat for the city’s choir on a commission from the German Music Council. Although Swayne was writing in a distinctly non-Anglican idiom, and Berkeley came at the texts from a Roman Catholic perspective, Pärt’s is the furthest separated from the Anglican tradition by seeing the text from the perspective of the Orthodox liturgy. This is an introspective setting (Nethsingha contrasts this with the “unfettered exuberance of the reunification celebrations” going on in the city at the time), and the choir of St. John’s shows remarkable intensity in maintaining this sense of deep meditation throughout the piece’s entire length – it is, in terms of time taken to perform, by far and away the longest setting of the text on this disc.

Several months elapsed between the recording of the Julian Anderson evening canticles and the other pieces on this disc, and while there was a change of organist (it is James Anderson-Besant who accompanies the Anderson) the choir sings this new work, premiered just a few weeks before the recording session, with the same commitment, polish and understanding as everything else on the disc. Anderson-Besant tackles the dauntingly energetic and spiky organ accompaniment with impressive aplomb, while the choir skates over the often rather prickly ground of Anderson’s writing with great confidence and self-assurance. I particularly like how various voices emerge from the texture rather like new growths suddenly appearing from the ground in springtime. There is some pretty blatant word painting (note particularly the “scattered the proud” episode) which breaks with the more subtle approach of other composers on the disc, but overall, this is a welcome addition to the repertory. A repertory which, in the hands of a choir as wide-ranging as the St John’s College, and a director as far-seeing as Andrew Nethsingha, is beginning to break away from the confines of the cloister and join the mainstream of concert music.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: 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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