Advent from St John's

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge on top form

Advent from St John's

Ahead of A Service for Advent with Carols from the Chapel of St John's College in Cambridge, broadcast live on Radio 3 on Sunday 29 November at 3 pm (the choir's 40th Advent service broadcast by the BBC), the choir releases Volume 2 of its "Advent Live" series led by its Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha.

Two pieces are in common between the two: Cecila McDowell's A Prayer to St John the Baptist (commissioned for the 2018 Advent service) and the final hymn Lo! He comes with clouds descending and the organ voluntary Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ BWV 661. Works from Volume 1 also appear, including Gibbons’ This is the record of John and The Cherry Tree Carol by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, a former St John’s Organ Scholar.

Advent Live Volume 2 contains recordings from the Advent services of 2008, 2018 and 2019 and includes comissions by the Choir from McDowell, Gabriel Jackson, Judth Bingham and John McCabe. The repertoire ranges from Telemann (Ach so laß von mir dich finden) to Jonathan Dove (a lovely I am the day), from Wolf (Einklang) to Britten (a radiant Deo gracias, complete with dancing harp part).  

Photo (c) Nic Marchant

Highlights? So many: Howells' A Spotless Rose glows internally, ceding to the spicy organ that initiates Cecilia McDowall's spicy A Prayer to St John the Baptist (commissioned by the choir for the 2018 service). Listen out for the keening soprano saxophone (Ignacio Mañá Mesas) in Gabriel Jackson's Vox clara ecce intonat:

Gabriel Jackson: Vox clara ecce intonat

John McCabe remains one of the UK's most under-rated composers, so it is wonderful to have his The last and greatest Herald.

The organ of St John's shines glroiously in the final hymn, Lo! He shines with clouds descending, but gets its own moment in the spotlight in Bach's Chorale Prelude, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 661, the final of a group of three settings of that chorale that end a set of 18 Leipzig Chorales. The chorale is associated with the first Sunday of Advent. This final setting underlines Christ's triumphant aspect and is, to put it mildly, compositionally jubilant: fugal passages abound while the chorale itself thunders from the pedals. Fascinating to compare this with David Goode's performance on Signum, part of his complete Bach organ works set. Both performances mark the end of a sequence of works, in James Anderson-Besant's St John version the end of an Advent programme, in Goode's case the final of the set of 18 Chorale Preludes (where it also brings a sense of symmetry as the first, Komm heiliger Geist, BWV 651,  and the last of the set are both instructed to be played "organo pleno" - full organ - and both breathe joy). Both performances fulfil different functions, then, and preference is shifted accordingly. Perhaps in a nutshell, one can hear a certain rigour in Goode's performance, while the jubilation aspect is very much to the fore with Anderson-Besant.

James Anderson-Besant (c) James Ealoverga

Here's the Goode (and below is the Spotify link for volume 4 of the complete Bach, so you can herar the full sequence if you wish):

Bach 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heoland," BWV 661 (David Goode)

Also from this source, St John's, springs a future post, the astonishing Pious Anthems and Voluntaries by Michael Finnissy, no easy listen but one of the most rewarding pieces to have come my way in a long time.  But for now, let's just celebrate Advent and the nearing of Christmas with this magnificently recorded disc.