Friday 4 November 2016

Sisters are doing it for themselves: music for cathedral and collegiate girls choirs

To be a light - Evening Canticles for Upper Voices - Regent Records
Music for girls' choirs; Ely Cathedral Girls Choir, Sarah MacDonald, St Catharine's Girls Choir, Cambridge, Edward Wickham; Regent Records, Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 4 2016
Two discs showcasing the burgeoning of sacred music for girls' choirs

The development of girls' choirs in cathedrals and collegiate churches over the last 20 years has led to an increasing profile for such ensembles, and the development of suitable repertoire. This provides a showcase for the talents of the relatively new girls choirs. Two recent discs have come my way, both showing off the talents of cathedral and collegiate girls' choirs. The music moves from the rather traditional to the more modern, from a unison vocal line accompanied by a rich organ part to complex three-part unaccompanied textures, showing that composers and choirs are getting more daring.

Ave Maria - Music for Upper Voices - Resonus
Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir, conductor Sarah MacDonald, have recorded a disc of evening canticles for upper voices on Regent Records, encompassing Howells in D (1941), Bernard Rose in E (1957), William Harris in D (1958) as well as a fine selection of more recent services by Malcolm Archer, Peter Aston, David Briggs, Simon Lole, Sarah MacDonald, Wayne Marshall, Cecilia McDowall, and Philip Moore. Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir was founded in 2006 and there are 18 girls, they sing Choral Evensong with the Lay Clerks on Mondays and on their own on Wednesdays as well as joining the men and boys.

Whilst Edward Wickham and the St Catharine's Girls Choir, Cambridge have recorded a disc of 20th and 21st century music on Resonus with Kenneth Leighton's Missa Cornelia, John Tavener's Missa Brevis, evening canticles by Diana Burrell and by Joanna Marsh, and smaller pieces by Rebecca Clarke, Judith Bingham, Cecilia McDowall and Stevie Wishart. St Catharine's Girls Choir was founded in 2008 at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. There are 20 girls, and the choir is the only college-based girls' choir in the UK and sings weekly in the college chapel.

I found something rather Ground Hog Day about Sarah MacDonald and Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir's disc with eleven sets of evening canticles, eight of the sets composed after 1999. That such a wealth of repertoire should be created is admirable but I am not certain I want to hear it all on one disc.

Malcolm Archer's 2008 Berkshire Service has an English style very much inspired by Stanford, whilst Peter Aston's 2001 Service in G is attractively Britten-ish. Gebrauchsmusik which would sit well in a service. Only with David Brigg's 2008 Jesus Service does our ear gets teased, as Briggs includes a rich, French-inspired organ part. This is clearly a special occasion service, the Magnificat lasts a whopping 6:24.

William Harris's Service in D from 1958 was composed for a women's voices, so has more complex vocal writing. The girls from Ely turn in a fine performance, lyrically flowing in the Magnificat and quietly contemplative in the Nunc Dimittis. Herbert Howell's Service in D (1958) was written for the men of Westminster Abbey, and is here performed up a minor ninth. The result is certainly effective with Howells familiar use of  complex organ part and a vocal line based around unison singing.

Simon Lole's St David's Service (1999) is appealing with some tricky rhythms and again, rather French organ writing. Sarah MacDonald's own Service in A Flat was commissioned as a sight-singing exercise, so has a double purpose. In style it is very English, with hints of Stanford and Howells.  Similarly Philip Moore's Warwick Service (2004) looks back to his great predecessors.

I listened to the disc blind at first, but was not surprised to find that the setting with a rather blues influence was by Wayne Marshall, his Service in C written in 2001 for St George's Chapel, Windsor. Cecilia McDowell's St Albans Service (2012) was also stood out on the disc, as McDowell provides a lovely yet rather distinctive texture to the piece with a really fascinating touch to the organ harmony.

The final service on the disc, Bernard Rose in E (1957) was written for Magdalen College and combines a not-uncomplicated yet lyrical vocal line, mainly in unison, with quietly elaborate organ part. This latter Sarah MacDonald, in her booklet note, calls 'trio-sonata-like' and notes that the organ scholar during the period of the work's premiere was the comedian Dudley Moore, who probably premiered the work!

Edward Wickham and St Catharine's Girl's Choir open with Diana Burrell's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1996), commissioned by the Norwich Cathedral Ed-Choristers Guild to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the cathedral. Wickham describes them as 'bracing'  and there is indeed a nice spikiness to the vocal harmony, with plenty of rhythmic interest and intriguing organ harmonies. Rebecca Clarke's Ave Maria (1937) has an attractive complexity to the melodic shapes, and conveys a very distinctive voice. Kenneth Leighton's Missa Cornelia (1980) was written for the choir if St Leonard's-Mayfield School.  It opens with a bright, rhythmic and very appealing 'Kyrie', and the other movements have some wonderfully striking moments, leading to an austerely expressive 'Agnus Dei'. This is a fine performance of a terrific piece.

Judith Bingham's God be in my head (2003) has a lovely fine-grained texture with clarity to the lines, and her Les Saintes Maries de la mer (2014) adds a certain spikiness too. This latter was written for a concert at the City of London Festival by girl's choirs from the cathedrals at St Albans, Guildford and Southwark. John Tavener's Missa Brevis (2005) was written for the choir of Westminster Cathedral. The 'Kyrie' starts with a long breathed melody over a drone, whilst the Christe has an austere clarity to the two moving parts. Each movement ('Gloria', 'Sanctus', 'Agnus Dei') seems to explore a different texture, but always a lovely rich harmonic language, with some very tricky moments (such as the wide intervals in the 'Sanctus') all beautifully achieved.

Cecilia McDowall's Ave Maria (2004) is intense and austere, with some lovely suspensions and a magical ending.  Steve Wishart's Three Carols (2014) were written for the choir and combine a medieval Celtic/folk inflection with some imaginative textures. Finally, Joanna Marsh's St Paul's Service shows a very distinctive and imaginative voice. The vocals are a mix of catchy motifs and spikiness with the organ contribution its own elements. I enjoyed this very much and it makes a fitting climax to a fine disc, one which I will enjoy listening to again.

Whilst the disc from Ely is admirably performed and showcases some very fine repertoire indeed, it is the disc from St Catharine's that I will come back to. Edward Wickham has put together a programme which pleases when listened to casually and has a nice combination of harmonic spikiness and ear worms.

That the girls' choir scene is burgeoning there is no doubt, and we are clearly going to have more recordings and more imaginative repertoire. Not included in this survey, because it includes items with the lay clerks, but certainly work investigating is Regent Records Sing we of that Mother blest, recorded by the Girls' Choir and Lay Clerks of Southwell Minster, conducted by Simon Hogan.

To be a Light - Evening Canticles for Upper Voices
Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir
Sarah MacDonald (conductor)
Alexander Berry (organist)
Available from

 Ave Maria - Music for Upper Voices
The St Catharine's Girls' Choir, Cambridge
Edward Wickham (conductor)
Alex Coplan (organ)
William Fairbairn (organ)
Available from

Elsewhere on this blog:

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