Magnificat 2: The Choir of St John's, Cambridge triumphs again

A beautiful continuation of what one hopes will be a many-volumed series

Magnificat 2: The Choir of St John's, Cambridge triumphs again

The text of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ("Mag and nunc," as it is affectionately known) has generated a stunning multiplicty of responses from composers across the ages. Small surprise that this is the second volume of Mags and Nuncs from the Choir os St John's Cambridge and Andrew Nethsingha.

As Andrew Nethsingha's brilliantly detailed notes point out, the texts of the Mag and Nunc differ considerably, the first joyous, the second a sustained processional towards a light-filled climax. The complement each other beautifully, in other words.

And this volume is another cornucopia of composers: Howells, Giles Swayne (Magnificat only), Sydney Watson, Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Hubert Sumsion, Francis Jackson, Pärt (Magnificat only) and finally Julian Anderson.

Of course, we met this superb choir before Christmas via their splendid Advent disc. Here's an introductory video for Magnificat 2 narrated by Andrew Nethsingha:

The journey begins with a famous setting, the "Collegium Regale" Mag and Nunc of Herbert Howells, with its extended sections of just the choir's upper voices and organ and its satisfying opening out on "Glory be to the Father and to the Son", plus the most beautifully restrained opening to the "Nunc":

The sheer life of Giles Swayne's  Magnificat I is infectious, a piece influenced by the music of Senegal and Gambia. Just listen to the swagger of the men's voices at the opening.

Organist-composers are another leg to this disc, featuring works by Herbert Sumsion, Sidney Watson and Francis Jackson - the last-named of which recently celebrated his 103rd birthday. Watson's setting (1937, known as "Watson in E") is beautifully judged, its calm speaking of a deep spirituality. Let's have the Magnificat:

William Walton's Chichester Service is simply glorious - one of the best-known works on the disc, and deservedly so. Here's the magnificently crunchy organ-encrusted opening, and just listen to the rhythmic accuracy of the choir/organ interactions (the ever-excellent Glen Dempsey the organist in question):

Lennox Berkeley's contribution. the Chichester Service, positively glows, glistens and gleams here.  A dramatic setting that is infinitely responsive to the text, it is a clear highlight.

It is impossible not to like the cozy harmonies of Sumsion's Magnificat:

In contrast is the Arvo Pärt, with its frozen harmonies; interesting to hear the piece in the hands of an all-male cathedral choir as against the Pärt choral disc reviewed on BR Klassik here which includes his Miserere. The St John's choristers bring an amazing  sense of atemporal purity to the text - the challenges are meny for the performers, and Nethsingha is right to claim that at the time of recording the choir was full of superb singers.

The disc closes with Julian Anderson's outrageously exuberant Evening Canticles.

The booklet, a model of its kind, includes reproductions of composer manuscripts (there is even a link for better viewing online): a beautiful continuation of what one hopes will be a many-volumed series.