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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, January 2009

I had the enjoyable experience of reviewing Christopher Robinson’s disc of Elgar’s Sacred Choral Music not so long ago (8.557288). There he directed the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; here he’s with the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. These two Naxos discs stake out a formidable case for Robinson’s mastery of this repertory and his acutely sensitive moulding of the various choral forces under his command.

These part-songs are not so common on disc that any Elgarian would easily or willingly pass them by. Though I’ve always found them uneven in quality, at their best they offer top-drawer Elgar—unsettling, sometimes, and deeply expressive. For the record one should note that the songs from the ‘Greek Anthology’ are not here and there is only one item from Op.18. There is no direct competition inasmuch as the Finzi Singer’s collection on Chandos [CHAN 9269] doesn’t duplicate this one exactly though there is substantial overlap. On balance I would say that their disc is the more overtly expressive in terms of performance, though this Naxos traversal of the Part-Songs lacks for nothing in terms of technical precision, blending and unanimity. And the question of emotive engagement is a pretty close-run thing.

One notices the blending of voices in Deep in my Soul, the second of the Op.53 settings which is richly voiced but not over-indulgent in terms of tempo. The Op.72 setting Death on the Hills is a fine example of a general quality—not only clarity of diction but also the precision and unanimity of entries. The most spooky of these part-songs – and possibly the spookiest thing Elgar ever wrote—is Owls and this receives a comprehensively successful performance, fully alive to the more spectral and withdrawn qualities. This is a very unusual example of Elgar setting his own poetry and its vaguely Poe-like quality will intrigue those who are unfamiliar with it. 

The set of six songs that form Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands is performed with piano accompaniment and. makes for youthful, vivid listening. These are amongst the earliest settings and their verdant and eager profile make for delightful listening. Robinson shapes them with great care and surety. 

There are full texts and a good and very helpful note from Geoffrey Hodgkins. 

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, September 2008

The choir [are] most effective in the more inward music, but they seem to be having a good time in the heartier portions of Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, too… those with budgetary constraints will find that Robinson and his Cambridge students offer more than fair value.

American Record Guide, August 2008

This had me from the moment I heard the gorgeous sound of the Cambridge fellows crooning the opening measures of 'There is Sweet Music', Elgar's exquisite setting of Tennyson's just as exquisite words. As things progress, you'll encounter the sumptuous chromaticism of 'Deep in My Soul', a suave, sleek 'As Torrents of Summer', animated wordplay and pinpoint dynamic control as the 'Wild West Wind' blows, and charm aplenty in the six musical postcards from southern Germany that make up Sir Edward's Bavarian set.

Elgar, it goes without saying, was a British composer down to his toenails, but it's worth noting that his choral works are thoroughly cosmopolitan in nature. They aren't keyed to Anglicanism or the folk tradition of "Merry Olde England", so you needn't be a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile to appreciate them. (Not that that would hurt, mind you!) The overwhelming impression as this program unfolds is surprise that the music isn't better known. The only one of these pieces I came across in my 20-plus years as a performing choral musician was 'Torrents in Summer'.

So kudos to Maestro Robinson, his choir, and Naxos for bringing us worthy music in such stylish fashion. I suspect this will become something of a benchmark recording, which (at 8 bucks a pop) is great news for us and perhaps a bit daunting for other ensembles who might like to step up and give choral Elgar a try. Ah well, not our problem.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, June 2008

Little-known territory for the most part, eagerly devoured

Plaudits to Christopher Robinson and the Cambridge University Chamber Choir for their keenly prepared and fervent exploration of this still under-appreciated repertoire. And what an absorbing creative portrait of the composer they give us, stretching from 1889 and "Mylove dwelt in a northern land" (the first Elgar work to be published by Novello) to 1925 and the delectably assured setting of Walter de la Mare's "The Prince of Sleep". Other bewitching gems along the journey include "As torrents in summer" (from the epilogue of the 1896 cantata King Olaf), "Evening Scene" (1905) and "Go, song of mine" (1909). In the five items (Opp 71-73) from 1914 Elgar's treatment of the a cappella medium acquires an extra confidence (the writing at once dark, rich and penetrating), though perhaps the most sheerly gripping and diverse inspiration on this well filled anthology is to be found within the four Op 53 songs of 1907: sample the ear-tickling bitonality of "There is sweet music" or ghostly gloom of "Owls" (Elgar at his most daring and inscrutable).

Presentation-wise, I'd have preferred a lengthier gap between the lofty splendour of "Go, song of mine" and cosy cavortings of the first of the Scenes from tbe Bavarian Highlands (1895), heard in their original – and most winningly effective – guise with piano accompaniment (adroitly handled by Iain Farrington), not to mention a fractionally tighter focus to what is an otherwise tonally true sound-picture (the words are not always ideally clear – Naxos does, thankfully, supply full texts). Otherwise, these commendably disciplined and infectiously spirited performances are sure to give pleasure. A tempting price, too!

Emma Baker
Classic FM, May 2008

Elgar wrote many of his unaccompanied part-songs to satisfy the demand from burgeoning choral societies, festivals and competitions at the turn of the 20th century. You can clearly hear the composer of Gerontius at work in miniature. From songs with almost symphonic writing and rhythms, 'Death on the Hills' and 'Love's Tempest', to those that steer just on the right side of sentimental Victoriana, such as the piano-accompanied Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands or the haunting 'The Owls' (a strange, nihilistic little poem by Elgar himself). Christopher Robinson directs the clean, young voices of the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, which sing with carefully shaded dynamics and impeccable tuning, if rather churchy diction. Unusual repertoire worth exploring, especially at this budget price.

David Vernier, April 2008

At last, an expertly sung rendition of Owls (An Epitaph) that also captures the detail and ambience necessary to impart its delightfully weird, impressionistic atmosphere. Of course, this very fine choir also delivers excellent performances of many of Elgar's more well-known and best-loved partsongs on this thoughtfully programmed, very well recorded collection. Elgar fans will appreciate not only the Cambridge University Chamber Choir's assured and technically solid versions of There is Sweet Music, My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, and The Prince of Sleep, but also will be happy to find the rarely recorded Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, here in its original setting with piano accompaniment. The choir, whose 30-plus singers "are drawn from the graduate and undergraduate communities of the University", was founded in the late-1980s to perform "secular and non-liturgical" repertoire that normally isn't sung by the chapel choirs, and on evidence here its quality is of a standard worthy of those better-known, longstanding institutions. The engineering gives clarity to the men's voices that we don't usually get from recordings made in churches--and it's a treat, because their sound is especially lovely.

Importantly, this program brings our attention to several fine but infrequently heard pieces such as Love's Tempest and Serenade, and reminds us that those Bavarian Highlands songs, especially a couple of the middle ones (Aspiration; On the Alm), actually are better than we may remember. And conductor Christopher Robinson shows us how a straightforward, unmannered treatment of As Torrents in Summer can be the most effective way to sing it. Yes, we also notice how Elgar could overwork and overextend his material--Deep in my Soul; Go, Song of Mine--but that's easily forgiven alongside classics such as There is Sweet Music and My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land. Highly recommended!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2008

Choral competitions came into vogue in the UK in the early part of the 20th century when mechanised transport made it possible for amateur groups to travel around the country to take part. They created a new vocal repertoire to emerge, sometimes in the form of ‘test pieces’, but always designed to show the quality of the performers. Most quickly fell by the wayside, but those emanating from the more famous named composers still form part of such events. Having as a youngster been taken into these surroundings by a mother who was a popular judge, I grew familiar with such items as Elgar’s  As Torrents in Summer and Go, Song of Mine. He too had become involved in such groups early in life, but was well into his thirties before he began composing in this genre. For all their inherent beauty they were shavings from a master’s bench, and hiding beneath the surface you feel he was teasing out the attributes and weaknesses of the performers. That is highlighted by the inclusion of Scenes from the Bavarian Hills, a concert work to words by his wife following their happy holiday in Bavaria. They were lovely cameos, three later orchestrated to become part of the Three Bavarian Dances. But do not let me detract from the disc as a whole, The Prince of Sleep is one of the most beautiful in this genre, with Serenade much in the same mood. Certainly they could never hope for more polished performances than these from the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. They are a class act at a different level of musical perfection to the familiar college choirs, the intonation spotlessly clean and ideal internal clarity. It is conducted by Christopher Robinson, whose Naxos recordings with his former Choir of St. John’s College have won universal acclaim. His understanding of the British choral repertoire has few rivals.

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