Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sat, 09 Dec 2006

New English Hymnal



The Choir of Newcastle Cathedral

Directed by Scott Farrell with Michael Dutton (organ)

rec Jan 2005, Newcastle Cathedral DDD


Why? Well, presumably because, having finished their substantial project to record just about every setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis canticles sung in the Anglican Service of Evensong, Priory were casting around for a new large-scale project to work on. The New English Hymnal is the hymnbook used in most English choral foundations, the cathedrals and college chapels that maintain professional choirs and sing daily services, so it probably seemed a good idea at the time.

In hindsight they may be regretting it, because the musical variety that was possible in recording settings of the Evening Canticles, or of the great corpus of Anglican anthems just isn't there in collections of hymns. The 25 tracks on this disc all sound like hymns. They may be interesting hymns but there is such a thing as a surfeit, and, to be frank, not all hymns are as good as others. However, in recording a “complete” anything you immediately give away any control over the musical quality of what you are recording; the dross goes in on the same basis as the great.

It is not the happiest of openings for this disc, as On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry announces less that the Lord is nigh than that the choir of Newcastle Cathedral makes a harsh sound. This remains throughout the disc, notwithstanding some good singing from the men, the sound of the boys, while confident and generally reasonable in tuning, is pretty well unvaried in timbre and constantly hard of sound, verging on the nasal. At least it is consistent.

The other thing that strikes one as essential if listening to a disc of hymns is that, given that the whole structure of hymns is strophic (the same music for each verse, with the words changing) the words must be discernable. The acid test is to take a hymn that is less well known (track 8 Christian, dost thou see them NEH288 perhaps) and listen without the booklet in front of one. What is the hymn about? I'm afraid I can't tell you because I can't make out a single word, even in the verse sung by a gentleman soloist. This is the consistent problem throughout the disc, and if one can't hear the words, what's the point of listening to hymns? As a further test, track 9 God everlasting, wonderful and holy is a well-known hymn, but will the second line jolt the memory and be recognisable? Sorry, still no idea.

The disc is nicely presented, but one can really only say “it's alright; if you like that sort of thing.”

© 2006 Peter Wells

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