Advent Live, Volume 3: The Choir of St John's Cambridge returns

Another bull's eye from St John's, Cambridge

Advent Live, Volume 3: The Choir of St John's Cambridge returns

The perfect disc for Christmas Eve, one might suggest (Advent, the Christian lead-in to Christmas, extends from December 3 to December 24). As with teh two previous volumes, this is a compilation of recordings over recent years (here, 2020-2022), which in this case means we have three organists (James Anderson-Besant, Joseph Wicks, and George Herbert) and two directors (Andrew Nethsingha and George Herbert). You can find Classical Explorer’s post on Volume 2 here.

There is an emphasis on the new here, although the music we hear extends back to anonymous 15th-century (Nowel. nowel, One of your slepe), “traditional” antiphons and works by (J. S.) Bach.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (born 1980) was commissioned to write The desert-depths are stirred by St John's for the 2020 Advent carol service. There are two versions, one for solo choir, and one for choir with harp. It is the latter we have here (with Oliver Wass). Its premiere was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rightly, the booklet notes point out that there is an inevitable echo of Britten's Ceremony of Carols; perhaps the greatest impression, though, is a serene yet animated joy. The text is from the 1736 hymn Jordan's eras prævia by Charles Coffin, Rector of the University of Paris. The piece has an infectious rhythm, and a better performance is unimaginable, particularly in the control of the upper voices, and how there is no loss of tone in the upper reaches.

It is worth a reminder, perhaps, of the music by Frances-Hoad previously covered by Classical Explorer: There is no rose on Somerville College Choir, Oxford's Christmas disc The Dawn of Grace, and the organ voluntary Taking Your Leave, performed by Anna Lapwood on the organ of Ely Cathedral for her Signum Classics disc Images.

The name of Philip Ledger will surely need little introduction. Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge from 1974-1982, his recordings are many and legendary. His piece Advent Calendar was written as a memorial to George Guest (who himself also left a treasure-trove of recordings). Ledger sets Rowan Wlliams - like Guest, a Welshman. The piece is only two and a half minutes one but is highly imaginative, even dramatic, as in the pause after the words “He will toss him free”:

One of the most exciting of contemporary composers is Helen Grime, We have featured her at Classical Explorer a couple of times: firstly, at Sheffield's Music in the Round festival in 2022, where Ensemble 360 performed her Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell) and also we wrote on her stunning Meditations on Joy, performed at the Proms this year. Here, the piece is Telling, Grimes’ first composition for unaccompanied choir. A mix of variation and refrain, it is perhaps the harmonic basis that is most fascinating, slightly tortured as it reflects not only the birth, but also Jesus on the Cross:

If after that I find Frances Potts' There is no rose a touch anonymous; perhaps placement after Grime’s superb contribution didn’t help. It is followed by music by Bach, just to heighten the contrast: the chorale prelude Herr Christ, Der ein'ge Gottes Sohn, BWV 601 from the Orgel-Büchlein (dating from around 1713). In this piece, Bach reacts to the text when it says that Christ “sprouted’ from his Father’s heart. Bach uses the so-called “suspirans gesture” (see here for an article on this - basically a rhetorical sighing figure). Now, the organist here is George Herbert, offering quite a swift performance. The acoustic does blur the inner parts however:

Best of all in this piece in modern performances is surely David Goode, recorded just next door at the organ of Trinity College, Cambridge, again on Signum (available as part of volume 12 in that series, or as part of the boxed set):

When one hears that Pan fo'r Stormydd Garwa'n Coro means “When the fierce storms rage,” it is perhaps understandable to expect something dynamic. Instead, Raymond Williams' setting is incredibly subtle (something reflected in the subtlety of this performance):

Quite right that there are hymns, given the Christian basis of the disc (and, indeed, the festival). O come, O come, Emmanuel! comes and goes before an anonymous “Nowel” from the 14th century (sourced from a book held at Oxford's Bodleian Library). There is something tremendously raw, even rustic and bawdy, about this performance:

Juxtaposing that with Judth Weir's Drop down, ye Heavens, from above is a stroke of genius, It actually shows both compositions in their very best light. The instructions for Weir's piece include an instruction to sing like plainchant, which helps link the music to earlier periods:

Weir: Drop down, ye Heavens

More Bach... one of three organ settings Bach made of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one is BWV 659, the first of the three. Walking bass meets diminution (ormamentation) here in the right-hand. George Herbert's performance is highly meditative, more so than Goode’s. Both obviously have their place; the analyst in me prefers the laid-bare processes of Goode’s though. Here’s Goode, to compare with the Spotify of below:

Simon Preston's setting of There is no rose is an interesting choice (especially given there are settings by Britten and Joubert) in that it sets both English and Latin simultaneously at various points. There is high imagination at work in Preston”s piece, as well as indications of someone who clearly delights in the unexpected (metres , textures and even styles vary markedly within less than three minutes):

Another hymn - Come, thou long-expected Jesus - and then surely the youngest composer to have been recorded by St John's Choir. Harry L'Estrange was a mere twelve years old when he wrote O virgo virginum (first performed in 2020). It's a lovely piece, harmonically (and chorally) tight:

The story of Peter Maxwell Davies' One star, at last is a story of how chance meetings can change a life. Davies left London for Orkney in 1970. He came across a book of poetry called An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown in a bookshop (from which the text of this carol comes); the very next day, poet and composer met - again by chance - and were to be close friends until Brown's death in 1996. Written in 1984, One star, at last, one of those pieces that makes you play it again straight after auditioning. The harmonies are utterly remarkable; the haunting ending even more so (and what control from the choir!):

More organ, and what a piece! The famous “Sleepers Wake!” (Wachet aux, rift runs die Stimme) in a setting from Bach's Schübler Chorales. This is based on the fourth movement of the canatata, BWV 140 (1731). There are delicious dissonances here, and George Herbert's 2022 performance is perfectly calibrated, his choir of stops perfect, that for the Cantus firmus blissfully none too abrasive:

Goode is almost jaunty here, his ornamented right-hand playful, especially at phrase-endings. No missing the Cantus firmus .... arguably a bit too much to the forefront. It is interesting to note that the two-note anacrusis figure that characterises the opening, prior to the melody's appearance, is derived from an embellishment in the original cantata Bach used on the word “springen,” suggestive of the watchmen's joy at he coming of the Messiah:

Here's that Cantata (with scrolling score): the relevant movement is the fourth, “Zion hrt die Wächter singer” (Zio hears the watchmen singing) which begins at 14”39 in the video below:

Peter Warlock's setting of Adam lay y-Bounden follows. It is lovely, and restrained in a mystical sort of way until the final two words: “Deo Gratias” (Thanks be to God). Interesting, given Philip Heseltine's (Peter Warlock's) pagan interests!:

A final organ solo: from the Orgelbüchlien, Gottes Sohn ist kommen (also known as Gott durch seine Güte, BWV 600), just over a minute long but eminently satisfying. The text as based on an old Thuringian Advent hymn, and the piece does beg the question of just how much can Bach cram into a minute: the chorale itself is set as a canon, with moto perpetuo quavers for forward movement and an appearance of the B-A-C-H (B flat - A - C - B natural) motif in the 18th bar; plus, Bach structures the piece according to the Golden Section!:

After a rousing hymn (On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry) and the lovely traditional antiphon O Emmanuel (so beautifully sung by the male voices of St John's), another Adam lay y-bounden (the more famous one by Philip Ledger).

Finally, a piece by John Gardner (1917-2011). Gardner is best known for his Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. His A Gallery Carol is remarkably potent. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never really lets go. The crushing organ dissonances are fabulous, especially when as well recorded as here:

This superb disc may be purchased at Amazon using this link, where at the time of writing the disc is discounted by 6%.