Wednesday 11 December 2013

War and Peace - The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge

War and Peace - Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, Mark Williams - SIGCD328
This new disc from the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge is entitled War and Peace: Music for Remembrance, with a selection of 19th and 20th century music, predominantly but not exclusively British, which reflects the theme of the fallen. Starting with Parry, there is music by Charles Wood, James MacMillan, John Ireland, Mark Blatchly, George Thalben-Ball, Matthew Martin, Geraint Lewis, William H Harris, Douglas Guest and RVW, plus Arvo Part, Johannes Brahms and Kirill Stetsenko. 

What is interesting about the performers is that though billed as the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge directed by Mark Williams, we get two choirs for the price of one. There is the chapel choir, which is all male with trebles on the top line, and the college choir which is mixed, but the adult males are common to both choirs. On this disc both choirs perform and sometimes we get the combined choirs. They are joined by organists Robert Dixon and Benjamin Morris and trumpeter Rebecca Crawshaw.

Combining boys and women in the same choir is perhaps not obvious, but the boy trebles of Jesus College choir make a fine soft-grained sound (definitely not continental) whilst the young women in the sopranos have a nice light, clear bright sound. The result, in the opening item Parry's Crossing the Bar sung by the combined choirs, is a lovely light, bright clear sound; youthful with a lovely transparency. We get to hear the warmly attractive sound of the mixed voice College Choir in the next item, Charles Wood's Nunc Dimittis. Wood was a pupil of Parry's and became an important teacher (his pupils including RVW). Though he made several English setting of the Nunc Dimittis this version is for unaccompanied choir setting the Latin words and was commissioned for Westminster Cathedral Choir in 1916. It is a lovely richly textured piece, and the choir give a lovely vibrant but steady performance with nice interaction between the upper and lower voices.

The College choir are joined by Benjamin Morris on the organ for Arvo Part's Beatitudes. Dating from 1990 it is one of Part's few works setting an English text. It was premiered in Berlin by Theatre of Voices directed by Paul Hillier. When listening to the piece I have never been certain whether the uneven stresses in the English are the result of Part's faulty English prosody or simply the result of his tinntinabuli technique. St. John's choir gives a lovely calm performance. There is a sense that the piece pushes the choir to the limit, but the results are finely controlled.

James MacMillan's A Child's Prayer was written in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy and the words are a traditional text that MacMillan remembered from his childhood. It is set for two treble soloists and chorus, with here solo trebles Alasdair Austin and Samuel Fitzgerald being joined by the combined choirs. It is rather an austere piece, with the plangent solos being set of by the darker harmonic colours of the choir.

We hear the Chapel choir on its own with organist Robert Dixon in John Ireland's Greater love hath no man written in 1912 for the choristers of St Paul's Cathedral. The choir give the piece a vibrant power with some impressive but controlled powerful climaxes, yet there is subtlety too and the result is strikingly austere at times. Though Ireland described it as a motet for Passiontide and other seasons it is understandable why it has come to be sung in services of Remembrance. There are fine solos from treble Dominic Hill and baritone Michael Moldian.

Parry's There is an old belief is the fourth of his Songs of Farewell which he wrote between 1913 and 1915. The College choir bring a nice shape to the work, with a firm, bright sound. Mark Blatchly's setting of Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen was written in 1980 for the British Legion's Festival of Remembrance. Blatchly sets the whole of Binyon's poem for voices, organ and trumpet, here the trebles accompanied by Robert Dixon and with Rebecca Crawshaw on trumpet. Frankly I find the sentiments of Binyon's poem, when taken complete, rather difficult and it is only when given to boys' voices that it could possibly work. At the words 'At the going down of the sun', the trumpet plays 'The Last Post'.

Brahms's Geistliches Lied is one of his earliest surviving choral works dating from the late 1850's, a period when Brahms was experimenting with counterpoint. The College choir are joined by organist Benjamin Morris in a well-shaped performance, with a lovely transparency of sound though the words are not as clear as they might be.

George Thalben-Ball's Elegy started out life as a spontaneous improvisation to fill a live broadcast during the war. Here is receives a quietly contemplative performance from Robert Dixon.

Ukrainian composer Kirill Stetsenko was both an Orthodox priest and composer, as well as being the head of the music section of the Ministry of Education for the short-lived Ukranian People's Republic.Blahoslovy dushe moya hospoda (Bless the Lord O my Soul) is a quietly prayerful piece which starts of mainly unison, but develops harmonically and rises to a powerful climax before dying away again. Here receiving a finely crafted performance from the College choir.

Matthew Martin's Justorum Animae was written in 2003 and sets the Latin proper for the Feast of All Saints for lower voices (alto, tenor, bass). It is well wrought piece, full of rich harmony and receives a fine performance from the College choir. Geraint Lewis's The Souls of the Righteous was composed as a memorial for William Matthias. There is an impressive organ introduction (played by Benjamin Morris) before the Combined choirs make a lovely hushed entry. The choral writing is slow and homophonic, the piece stately and impressive with some great organ interruptions to the choral writing, and a wonderfully rapt conclusion.

William Harris's Faire is the Heaven is a wonderfully rich setting for double choir of Edmund Spenser, a setting beloved of many choristers. The College choir bring to the opening a clarity and lightness of texture. Smooth and steady at first, the performance develops a wonderful vitality in the middle section and they mange Harris's enharmonic changes with aplomb.

Douglas Guest was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey. His setting of lines from Laurence Binyon's poem For the Fallen was written for Remembrance Day in 1971. It is a short, well wrought and effective. Here nicely sung by the Chapel choir.

The Combined choirs then sing the Kontakion for the Dead, a traditional Kievan melody which forms part of the Russian Orthodox Burial Service. They make a lovely firm sound, creating a very affecting performance.

Finally the College choir is joined by Robert Dixon on Organ, Rebecca Crawshaw on trumpet with solos from Harriet Flower, Sophie Hytner, Edward Leach and Max Cockerill for RVW's Lord, thou has been our refuge. The piece sets Isaac Watt's paraphrase of Psalm 90 with the familiar metrical version from the hymn O God our help in ages past, using the traditional tune St Anne written by William Croft in 1708. The result it both ingenious and wonderfully affecting, with RVW crafting a finely flexible unison setting as counterpoint to the hymn. In the middle section RVW leaves the hymn behind to create a rather more fully developed texture before the hymn returns on organ and trumpet. A finely sung and rather moving conclusion to a fine disc.

The CD booklet includes full texts and translations, as well as an article about the music.

I am aware that I have rather missed the timing of this disc, but though it was clearly aimed at Remembrance Sunday the strength of the programme and performances is such that I would certainly be happy to listen to the disc at any time of the year.

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