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Locus iste
Laura van der Heijden (cello); Glen Dempsey (organ)
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2018, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, UK
Texts and English translations included

There’s a nice sense of occasion about this disc. It’s the 100th disc to be recorded by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, and, coincidentally, it also marks the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the “new” college chapel in 1869. To celebrate these twin milestones, the college’s current music director, Andrew Nethsingha, has, with typical erudition and sensitivity, programmed a disc that contains 15 pieces, one from every ten-year period since the chapel’s consecration. Composers and performers include Johnians past and present, and Nethsingha’s programme notes draw links between himself, the choir, the chapel and, crucially, the all-important legacy of George Guest. The whole thing is a wonderful idea, celebrating the college’s musical heritage while simultaneously renewing it, and the results are really rather lovely.

Faire is the heaven is a shrewd choice to open the disc because it showcases the chapel’s enveloping acoustic very well indeed. The multi-layered music mirrors the picture of angels in their ranks spiralling around the throne of God, and those layers spring to life beautifully in the chapel’s sound: beautiful and clear; individual yet blended at the same time. Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin is, perhaps, chosen to demonstrate the same thing with its separate semi-chorus and it, too, works very effectively, even if the semi-chorus are perhaps a little bit too distant. Britten’s C major Jubilate later gets a more straightforwardly ebullient performance.

There is quiet beauty to Ned Rorem’s Sing, my soul, which I found very moving, sung here with unaffected simplicity. Conversely, Finzi’s Ascension hymn injects a spark of energy with the help of the chapel’s organ. Stanford’s Justorum animae and Tavener’s Lamb are quietly ethereal, while Poulenc’s Salve Regina revels in its juicy harmonies, again sounding delicious in the chapel acoustic. Johnian Jonathan Dove’s piece, on the other hand, sparkles with melodic and harmonic energy, a dazzlingly effective union of words and music brought to life magnificently here.

So too, if much more simply, does the gentle strophic Hymn from Christopher Robinson, a former college director of music, of course. His piece receives its world premiere recording, as does Alex Woolf’s much more harmonically stretching setting of O vos omnes, a darkly powerful meditation on the crucifixion. Remarkably, Woolf graduated from St John’s as recently as 2016, with a double first into the bargain!

The title track is sung with the disarming simplicity that is its greatest asset, and Giles Swayne’s subsequent Adam lay ibounden is strident and exciting, helped by its surging solo cello part, played by a current Johnian, who also won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2012. You won’t be able to forget that this is an English choir singing Rachmaninv’s Cherubic Hymn, not least because the basses lack the depth of their Russian counterparts, but there’s an ethereal quality to the sound that makes up for it. That Englishness isn’t a problem for Parry’s wonderful Blest Pair of Sirens, the most substantial offering on the disc. The voices are tight and perfectly blended, and the organ line bristles with late-Victorian confidence. This was one of Parry’s most popular works in his own lifetime, and this performance grounds it in its time while allowing us more religiously sceptical 21st century audiences to revel in its warmth.

The CD’s booklet is excellent, even finer than the others in this Signum St John’s series because of the comprehensiveness of its notes. As well as sung texts and translations (though no transliteration for the Rachmaninov), very extensive notes from Martin Ennis on the music, and an introduction to the programme from Nethsingha, there is also an essay on the architecture of the chapel from the current President, which you will also find illustrated via a Youtube video on the college’s website (here). A lovely disc, therefore; something that will appeal to anyone with an interest in the English musical tradition, whether you’re linked with Cambridge or not.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

Sir William Harris (1883-1973) Fair is the heaven (1925)
Ned Rorem (b. 1923) Sing my soul, His wondrous love (1955)
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) God is gone up (1951)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Hymn to the Virgin (1930/1934)
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Justorum animae (ca 1888)
Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) The Lamb (1982)
Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995)
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941)
Christopher Robinson (b. 1936) Jesu, grant me this, I pray (1985)
Alex Woolf (b. 1995) O vos omnes (2016)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Jubilate in C (1961)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) Locus Iste (1869)
Giles Swayne (b. 1946) Adam lay ibounden (2009)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Cherubic Hymn (1910)
Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) Blest pair of sirens (1887)

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