William Walton -----> Classical Music Reviews


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English Choral Music, William Walton, The Choir of St JohnÕs College, Cambridge Christopher Whitton - Organ Directed by Christopher Robinson

1. Coronation Te Deum 2. A Litany: Drop drop slow tears 3-4. Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis 5. Where does all the uttered music go? 6. Jubilate Deo 7. Organ solo: Henry V: Touch her soft lips and part 8. Cantico del Sol 9. Organ solo: Henry V: Passacaglia ÒDeath of FalstaffÓ 10. The Twelve 11. Set me as a seal upon thine heart 12. Antiphon Missa Brevis 13. Kyrie 14. Sanctus and Benedictus 15. Agnus Dei 16. Gloria

Recorded in the chapel of St JohnÕs College, Cambridge on 10-12 July 2001 Naxos 8.555793 TPT: 66Õ09Ó

It says a great deal for the reputation that Naxos has built up that choirs of the like of St JohnÕs College Cambridge choose to record with them, rather than their full price competitors. Here is a group that, notwithstanding the more popular recognition accorded to KingÕs College, still takes the palm amongst devotees of English Choral Music as the finest of its type in the world. The consistency of the Choir of St JohnÕs College is exemplary and, under the subtle but demanding direction of Christopher Robinson for the last 11 years this reputation for quiet excellence has been strongly upheld. To followers of developments in these areas this disc of music by William Walton will have a particular resonance. Not only is 2002 the centenary of WaltonÕs birth, but with the retirement of Christopher Robinson at the end of this academic year (to be replaced by David Hill, who has achieved so much as Director of the Choir of Winchester Cathedral) this disc will be one of the last to be issued under this particular combination of singers and director.

Walton is not so well known for his choral music as for the great orchestral show pieces, or the endlessly colourful eccentricities of the youthful Facade, but the church and its music occupied him throughout his career, even if his own time as a chorister at Christ Church Oxford was not a happy one for him. This disc contains a representative sample of WaltonÕs sacred choral music, ranging from the ever-evocative and simple Drop drop slow tears written by a 15 year old school boy, to the late evening canticles of the Chichester Service written some 60 years later. In these, and the works from all the intervening periods, the choir sings with the accustomed precision and musicality that is their hallmark. Indeed it is this very aspect of the sheer musicianship that has set the stamp of primacy on the choir of St JohnÕs for so many people. The control exhibited in the tour-de-force of The Twelve proves the point. A demanding and dramatic mini oratorio for soloists, organ and choir on a text by W H Auden, this is a work that requires the utmost conviction and here receives such in plenty. Of the excellent soloists, the bass of Gareth Jones stands out.

The other major work is the Missa Brevis from 1966. Written for Coventry Cathedral it is indeed a very brief Mass, barely nine minutes long, and yet it is full of pungent harmonies and curiously effective angular melodies. While clearly designed for liturgical use (and here performed in the original order with the Gloria at the end, after the order of the Eucharistic service in the Book of Common Prayer) this is music to show off the abilities of a well-trained choir. This choir manages excellently.

Two arrangements of excerpts from the film score for Henry V serve as organ interludes in the programme. The playing of Christopher Whitton is taut and sprightly, especially in the Passacaglia, but there is always something missing when WaltonÕs marvelously expansive orchestrations are not available. The organ of St JohnÕs Chapel is fine, if less individual than its predecessor, but the sheer range of colour is no comparison for the symphonic experience of these pieces.

Smaller choral works such as the beautiful anthem Set me as a seal upon thy heart and Antiphon also receive well thought out and tellingly sensitive performances. Robinson manages to create in his singers a sense of the importance of line in simple music and Set me as a seal possibly sums up the reputation for perfection of sound, diction and phrasing that makes this choir so much of an example for others. This is an important disc that will surely find a ready place of honour in the collection of any listener with an interest in that distinctly English field of the glories of music for the Anglican Church. (Peter Wells)

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