In the rush to grasp the glittering, commercial excesses of Christmas the meditative, preparatory season of Advent is frequently overlooked. Therefore, it is with relief and joy that we can welcome this hour-long anthology. Drawn from live BBC Radio broadcasts from 2014 17, these 19 tracks concentrate on music by living composers, many with a strong link to the College, as well as to Cambridge, sung mostly to English texts.
Britten’s A Hymn to St Columba (1962) makes a strong opener, setting the scene for James Burton’s powerful and attractive Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, the first of two settings of this text (the other being the better-known one by David Willcocks). Equally impressive are the brace of carols by Ian Shaw – the second of which, I sing of a maiden, features the superb harp-playing of Anne Denholm – and Judith Bingham’s The clouded heaven. Of an older generation of composers, John Joubert’s There is no rose retains its classic poise and it was a joy to encounter Francis Jackson’s I know a flower for the first time, with its fresh and flagrant harmony.
For a stronger flavour, James Long’s Vigilate (2012) fits the bill; likewise Tim Watts’s The Birth of Speech, which benefits greatly from the stylish violin-playing of Stephanie Childress and Julia Hwang. Of the two tracks from the Renaissance period, Gibbons’s This is the record of John is the most satisfying, with an excellent contribution from the countertenor Hugh Cutting.
This new disc is an important snapshot of the continuing St John’s story, revealing that in recent years, under Andrew Nethsingha’s inspired direction, the choir has retained its renowned clarity, flamboyance and readiness to take risks. The various organ scholars also give splendid support throughout and the whole production is first-class, enhanced by Martin Ennis’s excellent notes. Despite the presence of a live audience I caught only one muffled sneeze, in the final ecstatic Noe, noe of David Bednall.