A great tradition is thriving under music director Andrew Nethsingha, finds Caroline Gill
You know what they always say: it’s the quiet ones you need to watch. While the recordings of several Oxbridge choirs have placed them firmly in the forefront of current choral music activity, that of St John’s College, Cambridge, has been working away discreetly on a number of projects over the three years since its director of music, Andrew Nethsingha, succeeded David Hill.The products of this unfussy-yet-fruitful industry include extensive commissioning of new works, and a burgeoning relationship between the choir and its new recording label, Chandos, which has so far yielded a single-composer disc of Howells choral music, and now a more varied recording of the music sung regularly at St John’s, “Hear My Voice”.
During my conversation with Nethsingha, which takes places over tea in Cambridge just before Evensong (although had it been after I feel sure it would have been pale sherry) he sits right on the edge of his seat, completely engaged with the music he is discussing and equally concerned not to give any hint of arrogance (“everybody in this choir is talented, not just me – if we can get everyone contributing musical ideas it can solve problems and be very creative,”).
The new disc – a compilation of choral repertoire spanning most of Europe, and five centuries – is the result of his desire to exhibit the full breadth of what the choir at St John’s does, aside from its Ash Wednesday service, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 almost every year for four decades.
“I was keen for as much variety as possible,” says Nethsingha. “I do think this is one of the choirs with the most distinctive personalities, in the same way that some of the great European orchestras have retained a specific identity over time.” He says he thinks the choir has “been different” under its different directors, “but I also think there’s a considerable underlying sense of continuity.”
It must have been difficult stepping into the not inconsiderable shoes of his three predecessors, George Guest, Christopher Robinson as well as Hill, especially when the choral tradition at St John’s can, for the sake of any argument, be said only to have started in earnest with the arrival of George Guest at the college in 1951. I wonder whether this disc may in some ways be a showcase not only for the choir, but an opportunity to contextualise himself in what is a deceptively young tradition.
Nethsingha smiles (he does this a lot). “The pressure is huge, yes. It’s like the choral equivalent of what Simon Rattle must have felt when he arrived in Berlin. I’m not comparing myself to him, but my predecessors really are the Abbados and Karajans of the choral world. But I do think the fact that I had been organ scholar in George Guest’s time means I’m steeped in the unique John’s tradition, however you might describe that particular warmth and passion.”
And is that how you would describe it?
“George conjured up a unique soundworld: he was influenced by Boris Ord at King’s College; George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral; the monks of Solesmes… but there’s no question George’s choir sounded like anything else.”
There is certainly a unique tradition in the choir of St John’s of allowing the choral scholars in the back rows to sing with what Nethsingha calls “a certain type of freedom”, and which Stephen Layton, director of music next door at Trinity College, describes as “always sounding old. Older voices go to John’s and are allowed to really sing. Its directors of music traditionally encourage that big, mature, male sound.”