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War and Peace - Music for Remembrance
track listing below review
The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge/Mark Williams
Robert Dixon and Benjamin Morris (organ)/Rebecca Crawshaw (trumpet)
rec. 17-20 April 2012, Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge. DDD
Texts and English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD328 [74.48]

This is the sort of programme we’ll be experiencing quite a lot in the next four years, I suspect, as music helps us to commemorate World War I. The musicians of Jesus College, Cambridge have got in early with this interesting and discriminating selection.
 
Though the singers are billed as the Choir of Jesus College there are in fact two choirs here. Perhaps uniquely among Oxbridge colleges the college maintains two choirs: the Chapel Choir is a traditional all-male choir, including boy trebles; and since 1982 there has also been an undergraduate choir, the College Choir, which has female sopranos and some female altos with the adult male singers from the Chapel Choir joining this ensemble as well. The two groups share the responsibility of singing the services in the college chapel each week and sometimes they sing as a Combined Choir. On this disc each choir sings a number of pieces and they come together for four items. It’s a sizeable body of singers, consisting of 17 trebles, 9 sopranos, 8 altos/countertenors, 4 tenors and 6 basses. I wondered if the Combined Choir might sound a bit top-heavy but such is not the case.
 
There’s a good deal of fine music on the programme. Parry’s magnificent There is an old belief, one of his glorious Songs of Farewell, is one piece that merits that description. It’s sung here by the College Choir and they make an excellent job of it. They sing with fervour though I did wonder if they were not just a fraction too closely recorded: both of these comments are issues to which I’ll return later. To Sir William Harris belongs the distinction of having written two of the finest anthems in the English church repertoire. One - my favourite by a short head - is Bring us, O Lord God; the other, included here, is Faire is the heaven. The College Choir performs this also and Harris’s masterly writing for double choir and his luxuriant textures are realised extremely well in a very fine performance; I like the way that the various lines are sung with clarity yet everything is well blended. And among fine works one has to number also Ireland’s Greater love hath no man. This time it’s the turn of the Chapel Choir to shine and they do so in an excellent, committed performance.
 
Not all the music is as well-known as those pieces already mentioned. Mark Blatchly wrote September 1914: For the Fallen for the Royal British Legion’s annual Festival of Remembrance in 1980. It’s scored for trebles, singing either in unison or in two parts, and organ. He sets Laurence Binyon’s poem which includes the famous lines beginning ‘They shall grow not old’. In my opinion no one has set this poem better than Elgar in his masterly but neglected The Spirit of England but Blatchly’s is a fine, affecting setting which has more than a whiff of Elgarian nobility to it. It features a memorable tune which flowers fully in the stanza that begins with ‘They shall grow not old’; the second time it’s heard a trumpeter, here Jesus College alumna, Rebecca Crawshaw, plays the Last Post. The Jesus College choristers sing this piece very well indeed.
 
I was glad to encounter Matthew Martin’s Justorum animae. It’s set for male voices (ATB) and it’s a deeply-felt piece, which the Combined Choirs sing eloquently. In his anthem The souls of the righteous, written in memory of William Mathias, Geraint Lewis sets the same words as Martin but in English. This is also sung by the Combined Choirs, this time with the sopranos and trebles added to the mix. Lewis’s music makes its effect cumulatively and through fairly simple means but it’s an effective piece and it benefits here from expressive, full-toned singing.
 
I said earlier that there were two issues to which I’d return. One is the fervour of the singing. I mentioned this in the context of Parry’s There is an old belief but this quality is evident right from the start of the programme. I don’t think I’ve heard the Jesus College Choir before but I was impressed. Their tone is full and pleasing, pitching is accurate and they’re a pleasure to listen to. However, what impressed me more than anything is the sense of engagement, the commitment with which they sing the music. This is never overdone but all the time you feel as if the music - and the words - matter to them. I found their performances thoroughly convincing.
 
In many ways they are recorded very well. However, once or twice I wondered if the choir did not sound too close. I felt this to be the case in the aforementioned Parry piece. Another piece that could have benefited if the singers had been a little further away from the microphone is James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer. Here the choir just sounds too ‘present’ - and especially the two very good treble soloists. By comparison, Westminster Cathedral Choir, admittedly recorded in a significantly bigger building, are heard from a greater distance and there’s more atmosphere - magic, even - in their performance (Hyperion CDA67219). I suspect the placing of the microphones was dictated by the physical space available in the college chapel. While the issue is not a huge one a slightly greater distance between choir and microphones might have added atmosphere without sacrificing clarity.
 
The college’s two Organ Scholars accompany several pieces and the Senior Organ Scholar, Robert Dixon, gets a solo in the shape of Thalben-Ball’s famous Elegy, which he does very well. By a pleasing coincidence both served as Organ Scholar at Gloucester Cathedral - probably in succession to one another - before going up to Cambridge. Mark Williams, who has been Director of Music at the college since 2009, has clearly trained his singers very well indeed and he conducts the programme very well.
 
The well-presented booklet includes all the texts and very useful notes by Malcolm MacDonald.
 
John Quinn

Track listing
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Crossing the Bar [2.40]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926)
Nunc dimittis [2.54]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
The Beatitudes [6.56]
James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
A Child’s Prayer [3.51]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Greater love hath no man [6.02]
Sir Hubert PARRY
There is an old belief [4.00]
Mark BLATCHLY (b.1960)
September 1914: For the Fallen [5.00]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Geistliches Lied [5:24]
Sir George THALBEN-BALL (1896-1987)
Elegy [4.43]
Kirill STETSENKO (1882-1922)
Blahoslovy dushe moya hospoda [2.58]
Matthew MARTIN (b.1976)
Justorum animae [2.38]
Geraint LEWIS (b.1958)
The souls of the righteous [7.47]
Sir William H. HARRIS (1883-1973)
Faire is the heaven [5.24]
Douglas GUEST (1916-1996)
For the Fallen [1.17]
Traditional Kiev Melody
Kontakion of the Dead [3.51]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Lord, thou hast been our refuge [9.21]  
   


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