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Canticle setting and singing

BASIL RAMSEY listens to a living tradition on record

CD Review
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St George's Chapel at Windsor adopts a wide-angle-lens view of Evening Canticles: six of the fourteen here sung are non-British. From Latin traditions are de Vivanco's alternation of plainsong (of the Eighth tone) and ornate polyphony and Diego's Nunc Dimittis in the same fashion to the Third tone. Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. St. George's Chapel Choir, Windsor. Copyright (c) 1998 Priory RecordsOur own Thomas Weelkes' fine sixth Evening Service intervenes before a return south for Marenzio's Second tone setting of the Magnificat, and the later Soler's elaborate setting for two choirs and organ (or a pair when available).

After that profusion of polyphony, a leap to Victorian England requires an adjustment of perspective: Parry in D, nevertheless, has some unexpected moments with the subtle 'lift'. So does the later setting in the same key by H.K.Andrews, different enough in conception and execution. Before it comes there's the South African Stanley Glasser's vibrantly fresh ideas, expressly for Windsor in 1995. (Click to listen.) To finish with Henry Smart's impeccable and grand Victoriana in B flat makes an ideal - maybe safely comfortable - conclusion to an imaginative collection.

Peterborough's has a careful balance, but by including Purcell's wonderful setting in G minor distances the rest somewhat from its radiance. The follow-on is a recent Bryan Kelly service for Peterborough, professional in its construction, but to me less vibrant in musical effect than it might be. I find this also to mar the Alan Ridout service for Peterborough. Canticles present a challenge which only a few successfully overcome. Other modern settings here are Stanley Vann's, also for Peterborough, and Francis Jackson in G minor. Yet I single out Charles Wood's 'Collegium Regale' as a worthy and deeply-felt setting, which closes this record most suitably.

Keble chapel at Oxford is glorious for sound, so the good organ and excellent (augmented?) mixed choir needed only to select a variety of quality canticle settings for the sum to be greater than its parts. A Tallis Latin setting is the sole representative of early music, the rest being 19th and 20th century English, plus Arvo Part's characteristic minimal apparel, which is suitable and solemn. The antithesis is found in the Howells Chichester Service with its chromatic crunching and sudden sunset colours. (Click to listen.) Other varieties of textures with something idiomatic are Pearce's eight-part setting and Vaughan Williams with a modal tread. Topping and tailing this programme is the full-blown romanticism of Healey Willan in A and Basil Harwood in E minor, both relishing chances of full throttle.

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. St. George's Choir, Belfast. Copyright (c) 1998 Priory RecordsMembers of the choir of St George's, Belfast undoubtedly love what they are doing, which is apparent from the result. No stone is unturned in the zest for good music sung well and, I imagine, often with the spur of yet more good music to be learnt. For the sake (I suppose) of a good recording ambience they have used Armagh Cathedral. There is no compromise in programme, giving us a Byrd's Second Service alongside one of the Howells cathedral settings, in this case St John's, Cambridge. They also do well with a Morley fauxbourdon service, the men are nicely expressive with Sumsion in G, and the boys put such vitality into Dyson's treble setting in C minor. (Click to listen.)

On that basis and at that level this choir sets its own standard. The result is good without compromise - everything fuelled by enthusiam and enjoyment. I shall return to this CD when I'm low in spirits and need reminding of what can be done whatever the background and whatever the excuse for not pushing forward.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, August 4th 1999

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor
Jonathan Rees-Williams (director), Roger Judd (organ)

Priory PRCD 634



The Choir of Peterborough Cathedral
Christopher Gower (director), Mark Duthie (organ)

Priory PRCD 632



The Choir of Keble College, Oxford
Philip Stopford (director), Stephen Bullamore (organ)

Priory PRCD 664



The Choir of St George's Church, Belfast
Nigel McClintock (director) & Christopher Gray (organ)

Priory PRCD 633


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