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Eastertide Evensong

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2018
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Release date: April 2022
Total duration: 56 minutes 58 seconds

Cover artwork: The Glory Window, Chapel of Thanksgiving, Dallas, Texas by Gabriel Loire
© Gregory Ballos Fine Art Photography

St John's first live Evensong album, Ash Wednesday, marked the period of Lent and reflected the tradition of the organ remaining silent. Now with Eastertide Evensong, organists rejoin choir in a blaze of rejoicing.

Our first live Evensong album was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the forty-day penitential season of Lent. This precedes Holy Week, a commemoration of the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion. Our second live Evensong album is taken from the next great season of the Church’s Year, Eastertide. This celebration of Jesus’s resurrection also initially spans forty days, taking us up to Ascension Day, and culminates on the fiftieth day with the Feast of Pentecost. Ash Wednesday featured a cappella music, reflecting the old tradition of using no organ from Ash Wednesday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil—a sort of musical fast. Conversely, most of the repertoire in the present service has organ accompaniment.

Evensong is a service which takes place each evening in Cathedrals and College Chapels. Simon Reynolds has written:

Evensong is becoming recognised and valued as a precious gift. It is meeting the need that many people feel for a reflective space in their lives. Its fusion of music, words and silence seems to meet the desire of those who yearn for the time and space to ponder life’s deepest questions—and to do so at their own pace. It is worship ‘without strings.’

John Drury, former Dean of King’s Cambridge and Christ Church Oxford, has said:

We need to do two things in order to enter into the spirit of these services. First, we have to be patient and relaxed enough to allow a long tradition to have its say. Then we should allow our own thoughts and feelings to become closer to us than life outside usually allows.

Mark Oakley, our own Dean here at St John’s, has described Evensong as 'poetry in motion'.

Our cover image is the Glory Window of the interfaith Chapel of Thanksgiving in Dallas. The spiral ceiling contains one of the largest horizontally-mounted windows in the world, made up of seventy-three panels designed by Gabriel Loire at his workshop in Chartres. Loire used 22-millimetre-thick slabs of glass which are much stronger and thicker than Medieval stained glass. The window is inspired by Psalm 19, 'The heavens are telling the Glory of God'. The Chapel’s website gives the following description, which seems to me a fitting analogy for the joy of Easter after the tribulations of Lent and Holy Week:

As the spiral continues inwards and upwards, the colours become warmer and brighter until reaching the centre where 60 feet above the floor the panels give way to a circle of beaming yellow light. Loire meant this progression to express life with its difficulties, its forces, its joys, its torments, and its frightening aspects. Bit by bit, all of that gives way to an explosion of gold where the summit is reached.

In 2012, Choirbook for the Queen was published to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Accession. It comprises forty-four anthems, all of which had been composed during the decade since the Golden Jubilee. My beloved spake by Julian Anderson was included in this collection, along with works by Jonathan Harvey and John McCabe which feature on previous St John’s albums. In publishing works by many of the finest composers of the day, Choirbook for the Queen aspired to emulate The Eton Choirbook, compiled half a millennium earlier. Anderson’s soft and lilting anthem was composed for a wedding, performed by singers from the London Philharmonic Choir of which Julian was a member. The text, from the Song of Songs, has been set by many composers, including Henry Purcell and Patrick Hadley. Its evocative poetry, redolent of new life and Spring is often sung during Eastertide.

Kenneth Leighton was a student at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where Anderson’s anthem was later to be premiered. Leighton’s childhood experience as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral had been profound:

This is perhaps why I respond emotionally to Christian subjects and texts […] it is the instinctive and emotional aspects which matter most and I don’t think one has to be an intellectually convinced Christian in order to write good church music.

After a relatively traditional initial training, Leighton went to Rome where he made a prolonged study of Bartók, Berg, Dallapiccola and Hindemith. In the 1950s he produced several works of serialism, but not of the kind that Schoenberg would have written; he had been inspired by the ‘perfect and supple means of expression’ shown in the 12-note technique of Italian composers. Leighton had a formidable intellect, spending most of his career at Edinburgh University including 18 years as Reid Professor of Music; yet he insisted that in his music ‘there is always a strong underlying lyrical feeling, no matter how intellectual the form’.

Leighton composed Preces and Responses for his close friend Dennis Townhill and the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh in 1964. His large scale Mass was written in the same year. It is very easy to underestimate the difficulty of writing a successful set of Responses; the number of composers from the last 350 years who have managed the task as well as Leighton can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The concision, choral textures, and responsiveness to the words are all masterly. Above all, Leighton has an innate sense of the numinous. The first choral utterance softly germinates from a single pitch, reminding us how all liturgy grows out of silence. Leighton also knows how to leave sung prayers hanging in the air, just as the scent of incense lingers. Such intimations of eternity form the essence of good liturgical music-making.

Having contributed to around eight thousand services of Evensong, I still love the way that almost every one has a different combination of readings, prayers, and music. Some texts are the same every day. The readings are chosen on a two-yearly cycle. The prayers may respond to topical issues. Anthems are often chosen according to the liturgical season. The choice of psalms is determined by a monthly cycle; numbers 12, 13 and 14 are allocated to the second evening of the month. I think of these as a suite of three movements—full of internal contrast, but bound together as a unit. Psalm-singing demands the greatest sophistication from any Anglican choir; I will write more about this art-form for our next album, which is to be devoted entirely to psalms. As in Lieder, one’s character and tone-colour need to be continually responsive to changes in the emotion of the text; in psalms some thirty singers need to think and feel as one.

The writing of good psalm chants is another underestimated skill. The three composers here were all masters of their craft. John Goss was Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral for thirty-four years, succeeding Mozart’s pupil Thomas Attwood. Goss wrote some of the most-loved hymn tunes, such as 'Praise my soul, the King of heaven'. If I were allowed the psalm chants of just one composer on my desert island, it would be Charles Hylton Stewart. His father was Organist at Chichester Cathedral; Charles followed his example when he served as Organist at Rochester Cathedral for fourteen years. He was appointed Organist at St George’s Windsor shortly before his untimely death at the age of forty-eight, but it was his two years as Organist of Chester Cathedral that created his connection to St John’s. George Guest was both a chorister and, briefly, Sub-Organist at Chester; he brought many Hylton Stewart chants with him to St John’s. The final psalm chant is by Charles Villiers Stanford, whose career began as Organist at Trinity College, Cambridge, before moving on to the Royal College of Music. Stanford’s impressive roster of pupils included Holst, Howells and Vaughan Williams.

Herbert Howells wrote some twenty settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. The Gloucester Service was written in 1946, shortly after he had served as Acting Organist at St John’s during the war. In 2020, during the first Covid lockdown, Patrick Allies organised a World Cup of Evensong Canticles on social media. I’m told it was followed by fewer people than the football version, but readers will be pleased to know that the Howells Gloucester Service won, defeating the same composer’s Collegium Regale in the final. During the tournament I enjoyed a description by the baritone Sam Evans:

The Gloria of Howells Gloucester is a wondrous thing of beauty. It’s like a day on the desert sands. It begins with a blazing sunrise, and the heat of the day builds with shimmering haze on the horizon. Eventually dusk arrives and night falls, revealing a starlit canopy above.

In the booklet for our album Magnificat I have written at length about the music and its relationship to the building for which it was composed. In fact that album was recorded just ten days before the present live performance. As Michael Tilson Thomas has said: ‘When you make a recording and finish it, you know tomorrow would be the perfect day to go back and start from the beginning.’ All the music on this Evensong album was broadcast live on Radio 3; nothing beats the adrenaline of such an occasion, and the inexorable build up of the Nunc dimittis that day particularly sticks in my memory.

Much of the beauty of Evensong comes from the incomparable poetry of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), compiled and written under the oversight of Thomas Cranmer. John Taverner was an exact contemporary of Cranmer, though he died before the BCP was created. The enduring appeal of Evensong is aided by the fact that we can interpolate musical items which Cranmer would not have expected—a French organ voluntary, for example, or a motet sung in Latin. Use of Latin is what Cranmer was generally seeking to avoid, but after nearly five-hundred years the framework of Evensong can withstand such treatment. It’s worth noting that Cranmer commissioned a Latin translation of the BCP in 1551 in order to make it accessible to other Reformers around Europe. In 1560, following Elizabeth’s 1559 Act of Uniformity, a Latin version (Liber precum publicarum) was provided for the universities. Nowadays it is hard to imagine Evensong fully in Latin!

In 1526, Taverner became the first Informator Choristarum at Cardinal College, Oxford, newly founded by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and now known as Christ Church. Indeed Taverner founded the College Choir itself that year. Most of Taverner’s works were settings of Latin texts from services of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Two partbooks here at St John’s and in Cambridge University Library are probably the earliest sources for Taverner’s sacred music. At the start of his career, plainsong was the most common liturgical music; polyphony was employed relatively little, being used to highlight texts and occasions of special significance. Hugh Benham has explained that initially:

Taverner, like earlier composers, supplied polyphony only for sections that the liturgy allotted to soloists [… however,] when he set the choral parts of Dum transisset Sabbatum, a respond apparently without a history of polyphonic treatment, he was belatedly acknowledging that polyphony now belonged to choirs at least as much as to soloists.

Younger composers like Tallis and Sheppard followed Taverner’s example. The text Dum transisset Sabbatum was prescribed to be sung every day of Easter Week and on the first six Sundays of Easter. Taverner set this text twice, each time using the plainchant in long notes in the tenor. Comparing the two responsories gives a fascinating insight into Taverner’s technique. Peter Phillips has written:

In the end the two settings, though structurally identical, offer quite different interpretations of the possibilities. Yet they both conjure up the same rhapsodic atmosphere, the same sense of space, the same sense of repose from the noisy and insistent world we live in.

Taverner’s sumptuous five-part texture spans a range of three octaves.

Charles-Marie Widor was given a one-year ‘provisional’ appointment as Organist at the great church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris in 1870. He stayed for sixty-three years! Indeed the church has had only four Organists in the past 150 years. Widor developed a genre of symphonies for solo organ, later to be continued by Louis Vierne and Marcel Dupré. Widor performed the premiere of the sixth of his ten organ symphonies at the opening recital of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Palais du Trocadèro in 1878. ‘The modern organ is essentially symphonic,’ he said. ‘For this new instrument we must have a new language and a different ideal from that of scholastic polyphony.’

After the tranquility of Anderson and of the prayers, and after Taverner’s depiction of the three women arriving at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, what better music to celebrate the Resurrection than the unbridled joy of Widor? This Finale is one of the most exuberant works in the repertoire—and quite a tour de force for our organ scholar in his first live radio broadcast here! I remember jokingly trying to dissuade James from using the Trompeta Real in the closing bars—but I like to give our musicians freedom, and he was right to ignore me!

Andrew Nethsingha © 2022

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