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The Tree
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Yale Schola Cantorum
Former members and friends of the St. John’s College Choir
John Challenger, Glen Dempsey, Joseph Wicks (organ); Jack Ross (trumpet)
David Hill, Andrew Nethsingha, Christopher Robinson (directors)
rec. live, 2011-2019, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge
Texts & English translations included

The title of this new collection of music from St John’s College, Cambridge comes from a passage in the Book of Job which Jonathan Harvey set in his piece for treble voices and organ, The Tree. But there’s much more to it than that. That Old Testament passage refers to rebirth and growth, and in his characteristically perceptive booklet essay Andrew Nethsingha expresses the hope that this can serve as a metaphor as we seek to rebuild from the great societal dislocations caused by the Covid pandemic. In a thoughtful and imaginative piece of programming, the disc opens with a single treble line, sung by just 17 boys, and closes with a great hymn rousingly delivered by nearly 500 singers. Growth indeed!

This disc is also a graceful tribute by Nethsingha to his two distinguished predecessors at St Johns, Christopher Robinson and David Hill who, in 2021, celebrate respectively their 85th and 65th birthdays. Both feature on this programme as conductors and we also hear music composed by Robinson. The recordings stem from no less than eight services at St John’s which took place between July 2011 and July 2019. (The very well-documented booklet makes it clear which pieces were sung when and also lists all the musicians involved on each occasion.)

The piece by Hildegard of Bingen is an Antiphon for the Redeemer. Beautifully sung here by the 2019 cohort of trebles, it makes a very evocative opening to the programme. Jonathan Harvey’s The Tree also uses only treble voices, this time accompanied by organ. The music is increasingly fervent. The boys surmount what I imagine are copious difficulties with great assurance and Joseph Wicks plays the fiercely independent and virtuoso organ part. James Long was commissioned to write Sicut aquilae by the College. Like a number of other St John’s commissions, he took advantage of Andrew Nethsingha’s encouragement to incorporate a part for an instrument other than the organ. In this case, a trumpet was used and Jack Ross makes several arresting contributions to this dramatic piece. Both the Harvey and Long pieces are performed with terrific assurance but I regret to say that whilst I respect the pieces, they don’t do a great deal for me.

Herbert Howells had a strong connection with St John’s, which began when he served as acting Organist at the college during Robin Orr’s war service. Later, in 1957, he wrote one of his celebrated settings of the Evening Canticles for St John’s to where, apparently, he was a frequent visitor. However, Andrew Nethsingha has chosen two of his less familiar pieces for this particular programme. Howells’ substantial body of music for the Anglican Church included only one setting of the Preces and Responses. These date from 1967 and I’m not sure I’ve heard them before. The music is much more complex and harmonically rich than one often hears employed for the Preces and Responses and they probably require a lot more rehearsal time than even many cathedral choirs have available. They also require a really expert cantor; here, the tenor John Clapham does a fine job. I’m very glad this music was selected for the CD. A Hymn for Saint Cecilia is another Howells work which doesn’t get many outings. When he was Master of the Musician’s Company Howells invited Ursula Vaughan Williams to write some words in honour of music’s patron saint which he could set to music. As we read in the notes, Ursula commented amusingly that “Herbert’s tune takes her [Cecilia] briskly towards martyrdom”. The tune may not be quite the equal of ‘Michael’ – few hymn tunes are – but it’s still a fine melody and in the middle one of its three verses Howells treats it to rich chromatic harmonisation. The concluding verse features a soaring descant.

Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ is the prelude to his oratorio The Apostles. It works just as well as a self-contained anthem and I’ve sung it in that form and as part of the oratorio. It’s been quite a few years, though, since I had the opportunity to sing it and this fine performance brought back a lot of memories. The recording comes from a service in May 2015 when David Hill returned to the College, where he was Director of Music from 2003 to 2007. On this occasion he brought with him the Yale Schola Cantorum, of which he’s been the conductor since 2013, and the combined choirs sang a service together: the Howells Preces and Responses come from the same service. The choirs make a terrific sound together and I greatly admired the way they deliver Elgar’s copious dynamics. It’s also marvellous to hear male and female voices combine in the soprano and alto lines – it makes such a difference in the passage beginning ‘to give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes’. Joseph Wicks is splendid in the way he uses the St John’s organ to translate Elgar’s rich and colourful orchestral scoring.

Stanford’s A Song of Wisdom is convincingly sung in unison by the St John’s trebles with organ accompaniment. Christopher Robinson’s Jesu, grant me this, I pray is an a cappella piece and it’s both beautiful and eloquent. The St John’s choir do it very well under Andrew Nethsingha’s direction. They’re equally impressive in another unaccompanied item, Stainer’s God so loved the world. Stainer’s music may be Victorian but this lovely little piece is transparently sincere.

Parry’s anthem Hear my words, ye people is a big piece. In fact, arguably it’s a bit too long: for example, the bass solo passage rather outstays its welcome – that’s no reflection on James Adams, the soloist here. On the other hand, there are some fine episodes, not least the one that begins at ‘He delivered the poor in his affliction’. This, I think, was specified by Parry as a soprano solo but it’s often sung by a group of unison trebles, as is here the case. The passage comes off really well. Parry wrote the anthem for a big choral festival in Salisbury Cathedral at which many choirs from the diocese would take part. Inevitably, the standard of parish choirs was variable so Parry carefully designed his piece so that the outer sections could be sung by reasonably proficient choristers with the central section left for the most experienced singers. Everything leads up to a grand choral conclusion when everyone joins in the three verses of H W Baker’s well-known hymn ‘O praise ye the Lord’. The present performance was recorded at a special service in July 2019, held in the St John’s Chapel, which was attended by many former members and friends of the Choir. Under Christopher Robinson’s expert direction, and with Glen Dempsey putting the chapel organ through its paces to fine effect, the large forces – suitably reduced at times – give a sterling performance.

From the same service comes the final item on the disc: the hymn ‘Love Divine, all loves excelling’. This is sung to that magnificent, stirring tune ‘Blaenwern’. After a prolonged period in which congregational singing was banned under the Covid restrictions, it is genuinely moving to hear so many voices – nearly 500, Andrew Nethsingha tells us – singing the first verse in unison. Christopher Robinson sets an ideal tempo which allows the majesty of the tune to make its mark. Then, in the second verse, which is in harmony, we have lots of expert voices on hand who know the parts, so everything is nicely balanced. In the concluding verse Christopher Robinson’s highly effective descant adorns the melody while Glen Dempsey enriches the texture with the might of the chapel organ. I hope that after the musical desert that was the Covid regulations we will never again take for granted a sound such as this, which is so thrilling for both listeners and participants.

This is another very fine album from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Though the performances were recorded over several years and at different services, the standard of singing – and organ playing – is consistent, which is to say excellent. Consistent too is the quality of the recorded sound.

With the choir’s activities necessarily inhibited over the last 18 months or so it’s been very handy that the College has a large archive of recorded performances on which they’ve been able to draw for some CD releases. However, let us hope that Andrew Nethsingha and his singers, who are now back to normal operations, will soon be able to make some brand-new recordings.

John Quinn

HILDEGARD of Bingen (1098-1179) O pastor animarum [1;31]
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012) The Tree (1981) [4;23]
James LONG (b 1987) Sicut aquilae (2011) [6:31]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Preces and Responses (1967) [9:14]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) The Spirit of the Lord (1903) [7:20]
Herbert HOWELLS A Hymn for Saint Cecilia (1961) [3:27]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) A Song of Wisdom (1910) [4:59]
Christopher ROBINSON (b 1936) Jesu, grant me this, I pray (1985) [2:42]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Hear my words, ye people (1894) [16:25]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901) God so loved the world (1887) [4:16]
Hymn: Love Divine, all loves excelling. Tune: ‘Blaenwern; Descant: Christopher Robinson [4:37]

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