Friday 26 May 2017

Gaudent in Coelis

Sally Beamish, Joanna Marsh, Judith Bingham; choirs of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, Edward Wickham; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 25 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Attractive selection of contemporary pieces by three British women composers

This disc on Resonus Classics features the choirs of St Catharine's College, Cambridge - St Catharine's Girls Choir with girls aged eight to 15 and St Catharine's College Choir, a mixed student choir - conducted by Edward Wickham in a programme of music by Sally Beamish, Joanna Marsh and Judith Bingham. Two of the pieces on the disc, Marsh's Missa Brevis: Collegium Sanctae Catharinae and Beamish's St Catharine's Service were written for the college's choirs.

Sally Beamish's Gaudent in Coelis makes a bright and appealing opener with the young singers clearly relishing the rhythmic nature of Beamish's writing. Joanna Marsh's Thou has searched me and known me (setting a text from Psalm 139) is a lyrical poignant tribute to the composer's late mother, a piece full of lovely expressive harmonies which receives a poised performance.

Edward Wickham and St Catharine's College Choir
Edward Wickham and St Catharine's College Choir
Judith Bingham's Edington Service (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) is so named because it was written for the 50th Edington Festival of Music in the Liturgy in 2005. Originally conceived for mixed choir and organ, this is the first recording of the composer's revised version for upper voices and organ. The Magnificat opens with the upper voices over a rocking organ pedal, creating a very striking and distinctive sound-world. Austerely expressive, the work has some rather Britten-esque moments, whilst the haunting Nunc Dimittis is full of lovely textures.

Joanna Marsh's Missa Brevis: Collegium Sancta Catharinae was written for both the girls choir and the college choir, with the Kyrie and the Benedictus for girls choir alone. Premiered on Ascension day 2016, Marsh drew her inspiration for each movement from a passage from the Book of Daniel which is regarded as a prophesy of the Ascension of Christ.

The Kyrie is evocative with the combination of girls voices and organ being appealingly fresh-sounding. The mixed voice Gloria is a substantial piece, vibrant and up-front with some lovely varied textures (include solo moments) and an expressive sense of the words. After a short and intense Sanctus, the Benedictus for girls voices and organ has a lovely clarity of texture, and the final Agnus Dei moves from thoughtful to intense.

Sally Beamish's Two Canticles setting poems by Martin Shaw, are small gems, beautifully constructed with an austere expressiveness.

Judith Bingham has written a number of re-workings of standard choral pieces, her intention being 'to reveal the sometimes overlooked richness of famous choral pieces'. The new pieces only use harmonies taken from the originals, and are intended to segue into the original pieces as is done here.

First comes Bingham's The Spirit of Truth and Thomas Tallis's If ye love me, the Bingham being thoughtful, intriguing and remarkably romantic considering the relatively austere nature of the Tallis. Bingham also makes The darkness is no darkness, her re-working of SS Wesley's Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, into something striking and remarkable. Distant Thunder, Bingham's re-working of Parry's My soul there is a country is perhaps less remarkable a transformation yet it is still a lovely part-song and affectionate tribute. And in each case the choir provides a beautifully poised account of the original to follow Bingham's re-working.

The final work on the disc is Sally Beamish's St Catharine's Service, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for mixed voice choir and organ which premiered in 2006. The Magnificat starts rather striking with just upper voices and organ, before the full choir comes in. It is notable for the way Beamish uses rhythm and melody to create an attractive and distinctive sound-world. By contrast to the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis starts with just the men over a walking bass in the organ,

A number of pieces on this disc are gebrauchsmusik, composers responding to particular needs with 'useful music' which often transcends the original circumstances. The three composers on the disc are ones to which Wickham and his choirs have returned repeatedly, and in fact many of the items on the disc are first recordings. As such, the music provides an indicator of the idiomatic health of British liturgical music.

The performances are admirable, with the choirs giving a lovely clear and fresh sound. Unfortunately I did rather find the diction a little variable. A work like Gaudent in coelis had the words spat out, but in other cases I had to resort to the CD booklet to follow what was being sung.

This is an attractive disc and makes for pleasant dipping into, though I am not sure that the programme as a whole coheres sufficiently, nor does any work form a particular focus. It does provides a nice snapshot of the choirs of St Catharine's College.

Sally Beamish (born 1956) - Gaudent in Coelis
Joanna Marsh (born 1970) - Thou has searched me and known me
Judith Bingham (born 1952) - Edington Service
Joanna Marsh - Missa Brevis: Collegium Sancta Catharinae
Sally Beamish - Two Canticles
Judith Bingham - The Spirit of Truth
Thomas Tallis - If ye love me
Judith Bingham - The darkness is no darkness
Samuel Sebastian Wesley - Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace
Judith Bingham - Distant Thunder
Hubert Parry - My soul there is a country
Sally Beamish - St Catharine's Service
St Catharine's Girls Choir
St Catharine's College Choir
Will Fairbairn Neville Burston Organ Scholar (organ)
Alex Coplan Junior Organ Scholar (organ)
Edward Wickham (conductor)
Recorded in the chapel of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge on 6-7 January and 13-14 July 2016
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