The House of the Mind
Forthright sits well on the Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford. There’s an ingenuous freedom to their tone, sometimes almost a roughness, that might lack the polish of Cambridge rivals Trinity and Clare but which allows just a little more air, youth and humanity into the sound.
Music director Owen Rees cannily harnesses this (or rather, perhaps, refuses to harness it) in repertoire that celebrates that particular quality – repertoire where sincerity and gesture are more important than fastidious detail. Where Rees’s superb professional consort Contrapunctus focus on polyphony, with his student singers the emphasis is firmly on 20th- and 21st-century works – works, however, that ignore the more progressive developments in choral music in favour of the tonal, the useable, the nostalgic.
‘The House of the Mind’ is only the third release in the choir’s relatively new collaboration with Signum but it’s the one that makes sense of the ensemble’s musical narrative. A musical prequel, this collection of British anthems by Vaughan Williams, Howells and Stanford fills out the stylistic back story to the more recent works by David Bednall, James MacMillan, Cecilia McDowall and Gabriel Jackson the choir have already recorded (6/17). The addition of more recent works here – more Bednall, John Scott, Nico Muhly – stresses the close kinship between the two generations.
The result is a thoroughly pleasant recording but one where musical particularities are at risk of dissolving into a jewel-coloured wash of competently produced sounds. Only Muhly’s Like as the hart feels like a change of pace, owing to the cosmetic addition of a solo violin and percussion. Otherwise we’re rooted in a modal, chant-infused, John Piper-illustrated world of post-war spirituality that muses and ponders but never really grapples with the knottier questions raised by some of the texts set here – whether Joseph Beaumont’s ‘The House of the Mind’ (set by Howells, and losing a little dramatic impetus through its 10-minute span) or Ursula Vaughan Williams’s ‘A Hymn for St Cecilia’.
Affirmation is all very well but it needs the spice, the friction of fear and doubt to bring it into focus.