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Advent live v2 SIGCD661
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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 Ma 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
Texts & English translations included

I gave a warm welcome to the first of St John’s Advent recordings when it was released in 2018. Listening to this year’s Advent service on BBC Radio 3, it suddenly dawned on me that I had never heard volume two, which gave me the stimulus to seek out this disc a full year after its release. I’m glad I did because it’s really good; if anything, in fact, it’s even finer than volume one.

The central elements of success sound as good as ever: the chapel acoustic, beautifully captured by the recording engineers, the sensational sound of the organ, Nethsingha’s rock solid direction, and the solidity of the choral sound, beautiful yet keenly focused and utterly compelling.

There is so much to enjoy here. Predictably, the old favourites all sound great. Howells’ A Spotless Rose, Goldschmidt’s A Tender Shoot and Jacques’ Linden Tree Carol all ring with total focus and no haze to the sound. That suggests the vast experience and skill of both the singers and the engineers that captured the sound with such atmosphere, and is much to be celebrated. The boys sound good in the extract from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and in the Telemann rarity for they are accompanied by a lute, a sound even rarer in John’s chapel! Wolf’s Einklang carries a rich, Brahmsian warmth that you only really get with those late-Romantic German composers.

However, it’s the new pieces that are the real reason for seeking this out. The Advent service emerges from the so called “O Antipons” of the medieval church, four of which are sung here in atmospheric plainchant. Jonathan Dove’s I am the day, however, triumphantly reimagines them for 21st century performers and audiences, melding together texts from several of them and embedding hints of familiar music into an anthem that I found completely exhilarating.

Lots of the other new compositions are just as worthy of celebration. Cecilia McDowall’s Prayer to St John the Baptist is joyously playful, and I enjoyed the way John McCabe’s The Last and Greatest Herald shows off the trumpet stops of the chapel’s fabulous organ. I especially enjoyed the two tracks that showcase the solo saxophone playing of Johnian Ignacio Ma Mesas. The instrument sounds great in the chapel’s resonant acoustic, and its line plays beautifully with the solo alto in Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara. It sounds improvisatory next to the choir in Judith Bingham’s Introduction to Hark, the glad sound, and I loved the way the majestic sound of the organ emerges out of the sound to introduce the hymn itself.

Other established modern names are here, too. Arvo Prt’s Orthodox Ave Maria sounds fabulously joyful as it gambols across rhythms and tones. Elizabeth Maconchy’s setting of There is no rose is brittle but lively, and Paul Manz’s E’en so, Lord Jesus is movingly direct in its simplicity.

The disc also includes two classic Advent hymns, for which we get the welcome heft of the sound of the congregation, though they are carefully (and successfully) kept at sufficient distance so as to avoid eclipsing the choir’s professional sound. I got a lump in my throat listening (and singing along) to Hark, the glad sound and Lo! he comes, helped by both the communal urge to sing and the powerful sound of the organ. And the organ comes into its own when it concludes the disc with a welcome and powerful rendition of Bach’s great Chorale Prelude on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.

When I reviewed the first volume of Advent Live, I said that “there aren’t many discs of music specifically for Advent, so this one is self-recommending if that’s what you’re after.” St John’s choir are basically corenered cornering the market for this sort of disc, and that’s to be warmly welcomed. I found the variety and spiritual power of the music on volume two even more convincing than that of volume one, and I suspect it will become a regular part of my personal Advent celebrations in future years.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) I am the day
Arvo Prt (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 *
Traditional Antiphons – 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 la 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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