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Classic FM, January 2005

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Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, December 2004

"Another Naxos compilation and a very welcome one for several reasons. Firstly, it features a top male choir consistently on peak form. Secondly, it allows us an opportunity to investigate ‘the best of the choir’s CDs of the last few years. These have been of the English choral tradition as exemplified by Stanford and Howells - the staple diet of any cathedral choir. This double album will give an ideal guide to 20th Century English Cathedral Music.

And what a glorious tradition this is and very precious too. This is Cambridge after all, the home of so much English choral music of the early 20th Century. Each of these composers brought something individual and special to the tradition having in some cases been also associated more with the concert hall than with the cloister. Lennox Berkeley was a devout Catholic as was Edmund Rubbra. Both wrote symphonies and concertos but their choral music was vital for them. Some of it at least is still in the repertoire. In fact when I was choirboy we rarely sang either but now, as I look through the Times Sunday Cathedral music columns, both feature regularly.

Kenneth Leighton and Peter Hurford are performed far more in church than in the concert hall although Leighton wrote three symphonies and a fine cello concerto as well as other works.

Gerald Finzi’s contributions are outstanding and receive especially superb performances. Perhaps if I had to pick two works which succeed less well and need more characterization I might go for Walton’s Coronation Te Deum which seems to be more prosaic and formulaic than I had remembered. Also Howells’ ‘Take him earth for cherishing’ needs to be more than just beautiful. Also I must add Leighton’s Easter Sequence’ which, to my ears, also sounds predictable with the requisite syncopated rhythms representing Resurrection and Ascension.

Against that I should add that the choir under Robinson’s clearly focused direction makes other pieces sound as you have never heard them. One takes Britten’s Jubilate almost for granted, but this is a sparkling and very enjoyable performance which brought it back to life. The Hymn to St. Cecilia is often done by mixed choirs so it is a refreshing change, and a special one, to hear the boy trebles ringing out ‘I only play, I only play’.

There are some surprises. Look at the original discs. For example on Rubbra disc I would possibly have chosen a movement from the Saint Dominic Mass and not the Tenebrae Nocturne. However the latter is much less well known and so is a good choice..

I was also pleasantly surprised to find Finzi’s ‘Welcome sweet and Scared Feast’ from that all-Finzi disc..

A special recommendation should go to the boy treble, Oliver Lepage Dean who is so clear and yet strong - a beautiful voice. It almost seems as if VW had written ‘The Call’ especially for him..

Christopher Robinson’s tenure at St. Johns ended in 2003 having taken over from the late, great George Guest. It was the latter who developed the distinctive St. John’s sound and although Robinson smoothed it out a little it remains a unique contribution to the recorded legacy of this repertoire..

At Naxos’s bargain price these performances should be snapped up and relished. Better still, get yourself to Cambridge during Advent or Easter and hear the choir for yourself..

There are excellent notes on each composer and each work in the twenty-four page booklet extracted from the original CDs. All texts are provided.".

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