The Choir of St John’sCollege, Cambridge: More Interesting in Purcell Than in Seasonal Music

United StatesUnited States  Purcell et al.: Soloists, Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, St John’s Sinfonia, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 9.12.2011 (MB)

Purcell O sing unto the Lord
Remember not, Lord our offences
My beloved spake
Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei
Behold now, praise the Lord
John RutterWhat sweeter music?
Trad., arr William WhiteheadThe seven joys of Mary
Trad., arr Praetorius and Donald CashmoreEs ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
Franz Grüber, arr. Sir Philip LedgerSilent Night
Trad., arr LedgerSussex Carol
Handel – Violin Sonata in D major, HWV 374: first and second movements
Carl RüttiI wonder as I wander
Harold DarkeIn the bleak midwinter
Allan BullardGlory to the Christ Child
William Kirkpatrick, arr. Sir David WillcocksAway in a manger
Trad., arr. Mack WillbergDing, dong, Merrily on high
Over almost a decade-and-a-half in Cambridge, I attended a good few services of Choral Evensong at St John’s: more devotional, less of a tourist trap, than its equivalent at King’s. The Chapel of my undergraduate college, Jesus, the oldest college building in Oxford or Cambridge, dating back to the twelfth century, will always retain a special place in my affections. Yet, personal and collegiate associations aside, I should almost always have chosen a service or concert from the Choir of St John’s over that of any other collegiate choir, King’s included. There has long been a stylistic distinction between King’s and John’s – the only other choir retaining trebles is Jesus, which alternates between boys and women – which may broadly be described as white purity versus a more Continental full-throated sound, or Sir David Willcocks versus George Guest, and later, Stephen Cleobury versus Christopher Robinson. That may all seem unnecessary preamble, but I mention it to try to explain why I was more than a little surprised to hear the present choir of St John’s under its Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, sound surprisingly similar to what I might have expected from King’s, albeit without quite the ethereal quality one would hear from that choir at its best. Everything was of a high standard; there was nothing, at least in terms of performance, really to complain about, but the individual sound of the choir was much less apparent, rather as the Berlin Philharmonic so often nowadays no longer sounds like a German orchestra. The concert hall environment may have been a contributory element, but I find it difficult to believe that it was the only factor.

Another difference from the Guest and Robinson years – there was also a brief period under David Hill – was the use of period instruments. Nethsingha has co-founded with Margaret Faultless a period ensemble, named St John’s Sinfonia. On this occasion it was made up of two violins, viola, bass violin, and violone. Modern strings would certainly have sounded sweeter and proved more capable of remaining in tune, but the lightness of tone, intonational issues apart, possessed a certain likeness to the relative lightness of choral tone. Vibrato was not eschewed: indeed, the strings in many respects sounded preferable to those of the well-nigh vibrato-less Britten Sinfonia in Berlioz the previous evening. That said, it was quite a relief when, in the second half, one heard a modern violin in the oddly-programmed two movements from a Handel sonata. Julian Gregory’s performance was warm, stylish, naturally phrased, though one might have wished for stronger presence from the somewhat reticent pianist, John Challenger. (It was odd to have the piano for the rest of the second half, given that an organ had been employed earlier on.)

Back to the choir, and to Purcell. There was a judicious mix of full and verse anthems to be heard. Jubilant moments might have come across more resoundingly, but there remained, for instance, a fine sense of presaging Handel to the final lines of O sing unto the Lord. Tristan Hambleton handled the bass melismata with considerable flair too. Nethsingha had a tendency to underplay the truly searing moments: I have heard the dissonances of Remember not, Lord our offences, sound more wrenching. More worryingly, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei seemed at times quite oblivious to the words of the Third Psalm; indeed, it veered dangerously close to the jaunty. ‘Lord, how are they increased that trouble me: many are they that rise against me…’ The plangency of the opening sinfonia to Behold now, praise the Lord sounded quite right, though. Nethsingha’s direction rose properly to the occasion: ideally paced, rhythms nicely sprung.

The problem with the second half – apart from a poorly-behaved audience – lay more with the programme. It was very odd that the director of one of the country’s, indeed the world’s, greatest choral foundations was seemingly unable, or at least unwilling, to distinguish between Advent and Christmas. We could have heard some Monteverdi, some Bach, etc., etc., but instead we had a generally trivial sequence of Christmas carols and similar pieces. Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen came as balm to the soul: beautifully, intelligently arranged, even with a nice line in canonical writing from Donald Cashmore. German pronunciation was good too. It came as balm, though, partly because of the two horrors that had preceded it: John Rutter’s What sweeter music? is a piece of similar quality to the wedding gift the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had visited upon them by Westminster Abbey; Robert Herrick’s words deserve much, much better. As for William Whitehead’s arrangement of The seven joys of Mary, it has nothing to recommend it beyond – or including – that all-purpose jauntiness and syncopation (a 7/8 time signature) which passes for ‘modernity’ in quarters that somehow have failed to register Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance. Alan Bullard’s Glory to the Christ Child, were it a painting, would probably find itself ascribed to the ‘workshop of John Rutter’. Frankly, I should rather hear the music of Sir Charles Stanford, and that is saying something. Carl Rütti’s I wonder as I wander was similarly pointless. More ‘traditional’ settings emerged with greater credit, for instance Harold Darke’s In the bleak midwinter and the two arrangements by Sir Philip Ledger. At least Mack Wilberg’s Ding, dong! Merrily on high wears its campness on its sleeve – but that is all one can really say in its favour. John Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day was the encore too far. The choir of St John’s has sounded stronger, and it might well have done here, had it been featured in a programme whose second half had matched its first in musical interest.

Mark Berry