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With accompanying notes by Anna Lapwood vividly setting the scene, this diverse programme from the Pembroke College Girls' Choir is sure to raise a fond smile.
All of the tracks were recorded in Pembroke Chapel, with the choristers socially distanced throughout the space. We ultimately lost a couple of choristers to track and trace as the recording progressed, but everyone stepped up to fill the gaps and I couldn't be prouder of what this amazing group of young women has produced. I was keen that the recording should be a snapshot of what the choir sounded like at that point in time, and so it seemed only appropriate that we recorded in our own Chapel, despite the fact that our organ is not particularly well-suited to some of the repertoire. The organ is a reconstruction of an early 18th-century instrument, so it doesn't have a swell box or any playing aids. I'm immensely grateful to our two organ scholars, Owen Saldanha and Joe Beadle, for the time they took to devise sensitive registration schemes. The style of organ means that some of the more familiar choral staples on this album won’t necessarily sound exactly as they’re expected to in the English choral tradition. They do, however, sound like the Pembroke choral tradition, and, for me, that was the important thing.
As with our previous choral album, Celestial Dawn isn’t just limited to sacred music but includes a couple of secular offerings too. Some of the music will be familiar and other pieces are being recorded for the first time; I hope that some of these less well-known pieces might be picked up by other choirs and gain the recognition they deserve. Every piece that we have recorded brings with it a plethora of memories and stories, some of which I will share in these liner notes. It is my hope that this recording might bring you the same joy, peace and reassurance that the music has brought to us over the past two years.
Cantique Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
We begin in what is perhaps slightly unexpected territory. A piece secular, not sacred, accompanied by the piano not the organ, and written by the Boulanger sister remembered for her teaching more than her compositions. The beauty of Nadia Boulanger’s Cantique lies in its simplicity; sparse chords on the piano twinkle like starlight, underpinning a melody that sounds as if it has been woven from a single thread. The piece exists in two versions—the one heard here, written for solo voice and piano with a beautifully evocative text by Maurice Maeterlinck, and a sacred version written a year later for voice, violin, cello, harp and organ, with the text changed to ‘Lux aeterna’. I did consider recording the sacred version instead, but found myself repeatedly drawn back to the powerful text of the original. I also think it’s important for the choristers to sing in languages other than those which dominate our repertoire (English and Latin), and, seeing as one of our girls is bilingual, speaking fluent French, we had a lot of fun working on the text as a group. This is a piece which draws you in, envelopes you in a warm embrace and then doesn’t let you go.
Light of the world John Dankworth (1927-2010)
Simplicity is infused with a touch of jazz in the form of John (Johnny) Dankworth’s Light of the world. Dankworth was primarily known as a saxophonist and jazz composer. He studied clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, making him one of the few British jazz players of his generation to have had a formal musical education. Dankworth was credited with putting jazz and classical music on the same stage; his obituary in the Guardian describes how ‘He once opined that symphonies were the great novels of western music and jazz was the journalism; the one embracing the spirit of an era, the other catching its intense and characteristic moments on the wing’. Light of the world has a special significance for all of our choristers as it is the piece they all had to sightread at audition! With its abundance of slightly awkward intervals and a couple of key changes thrown in for good measure it makes a fantastic sight-reading exercise. It was also the anthem for the inaugural Evensong of the Girls’ Choir back in 2018, and has remained a firm favourite ever since.
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in C Wayne Marshall (b1961)
We stay in jazz land for a little while longer with one of the choristers’ favourite settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Wayne Marshall has managed to achieve a wonderful balance between music which presents a real challenge for the choristers and music which is incredibly fun to sing. The choristers always have huge smiles on their faces when they sing the Gloria! From an educational perspective I find this piece plays an essential role in the girls’ training each year: doing some in-depth work at creating a balanced sound in four parts always has a really positive knock-on effect on the wider sound of the choir, and so this is often the piece which helps our younger members step up to the next level. A particularly happy memory from our recording was when we finished an hour early on the final day; I asked the girls what they wanted to do for an hour and they decided they wanted to sing through as many canticle settings as they could from memory. Our recording engineer, Mike, ended up calling Wayne on FaceTime and so the (rather hyper) girls sang his Magnificat down the phone to him.
If with all your hearts Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
We turn now to slightly more conventional repertoire, and another piece which has been a staple of our services of Evensong since the choir began. I think it’s so important that choristers are encouraged to think beyond Evensong and engage with the wider repertoire, so I always enjoy introducing them to oratorio extracts. This aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah was originally written for tenor, sung in the first part of the oratorio by Obadiah, moving between the voice of God and the thoughts of man.
O perfect love Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949)
Harry Thacker Burleigh was one of America’s first prominent black classical composers and played a crucial role in the development of American art song, composing over 200 of them. He learnt piano and voice, studying the latter with George F Brierly, an English church musician who had been a chorister at Worcester Cathedral. As a scholar at the National Conservatory of Music, Burleigh worked closely with Dvořák, singing him the spirituals and minstrel songs of the mid-19th century. It was Dvořák who encouraged Burleigh to assemble the folk tradition of his slave ancestors; Burleigh began to publish these pieces in 1911, the publications in turn leading to Burleigh gaining recognition as a composer in his own right. O perfect love is another piece which was originally written for tenor; there is a gloriously nostalgic recording by Richard Crooks which I would thoroughly recommend listening to.
Ubi caritas Roxanna Panufnik (b1968)
Roxanna Panufnik’s Ubi caritas is one of our more recent discoveries. We first learnt it when we were rebuilding the choir’s sound following the first Covid lockdown. As with many choirs, we were stuck with remote video rehearsals for 6 months from March 2020, and so had to work hard to gradually get the choir back up to standard. One of the things which took some work was creating a blended sound in two parts again, and this was the piece which we used, so it holds special memories for all our singers. There is something immensely comforting about this piece; I think it’s the combination of the familiarity of the plainsong and the lilting repetition in the piano accompaniment.
The Seal Lullaby Eric Whitacre (b1970)
The Seal Lullaby is another one of our lockdown pieces. The girls were encouraged to request repertoire for us to look at in our remote rehearsals when we couldn’t meet in person, and this was one of the pieces they chose. It quickly became a choir favourite. Whitacre described how this piece started its life as a song for an animated film based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Seal, which begins with a mother seal singing softly to her young pup. The film never happened in the end, but the piece was already written, and Whitacre describes how he sang it to his baby son every night to try and get him to go to sleep. The piece now exists in several different configurations for multiple different voice parts, but I’m particularly fond of this version for upper voices. There is something about the slight fragility and innocence of young voices which I find incredibly moving when combined with Kipling’s text.
O that I once past changing were Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
This beautiful little piece of Lennox Berkeley sets part of George Herbert’s poem The Flower. As well as enjoying this piece for its understated beauty, I can’t listen to it without chuckling to myself thanks to a rendition of it which didn’t quite go according to plan in a service of Evensong at Pembroke. The piece repeats the same material 3 times, with a 2nd part introduced the 3rd time round. There is the option to reduce this down to 2 repetitions and omit the opening solo, and we decided to do just that for this particular service. The message, however, did not reach the organist, who happily embarked on the 3rd repetition before realising what had happened, resulting in a glorious improvised organ coda. I think one of the things I love about the choristerships is that they teach young people that things don’t always go according to plan, but what is important is how you deal with that. Special thanks go to Rosie, one of our head choristers and the soloist in this piece. This recording was one of the last things Rosie did with the choir before leaving to focus on her studies, and so this track feels particularly special.
Pie Jesu Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
For the midpoint of the album we return to the Boulanger sisters, and Lili Boulanger’s final work. Lili dictated Pie Jesu to Nadia whilst on her deathbed, and there is something of that reflected in the work’s haunting beauty. The piece was originally written for a solo voice accompanied by string quartet, harp and organ, but for the purposes of Evensong it works well for just voice and organ. I should say that I very nearly didn’t include it in this recording because it is one piece where I find you really miss the presence of a swell box on our organ. When I talked about it with the choir, though, they really wanted to record it—as did I—and so here we are. The descent and slowing into the final statement of the Pie Jesu, resolving into consonant harmony after the dissonance of the previous passages, always feels to me like Lili moving from the pain of the real world to the relief of death, the final Amen her soul ascending into heaven.
Drop, drop slow tears Richard Shephard (1949-2021)
We said goodbye to several influential musicians in 2021, one of whom was Richard Shephard MBE. His lifelong commitment to education is perhaps one of the reasons he wrote so many beautiful miniatures for upper voices, many of which don’t seem to be particularly widely known. The music itself was adapted from a psalm chant by Frederick A J Hervey, and I find it leaves an indelible impression.
O for the wings of a dove Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), arr. Anna Lapwood
This is another of the pieces that served as crucial to rebuilding the choir’s sound following the Covid lockdowns. When we first started learning it we simply all sang the solo passage, but the girls were desperate to carry on and sing ‘the good bit’. I think one of the challenges of working with an upper voices choir is that so much of the core repertoire is written for SATB, and so as directors we spend quite a lot of our time writing little arrangements that allow our singers to experience that repertoire without bringing in any more voices. This recording is quite special to me because of the soloist, Cecily; she wouldn’t mind me saying that when she first joined the choir she was incredibly shy and hated singing by herself. In the four years since then she has repeatedly reminded me of the transformative power of music, and I can honestly say that watching her blossom into a confident soloist has been one of the highlights of my career.
Ex ore innocentium John Ireland (1879-1962)
The process of recording John Ireland’s setting of Bishop Walsham How’s It is a thing most wonderful was one of my personal highlights from our recording sessions for this album. When singing familiar repertoire it can be quite easy to go into autopilot and, at the end of a long day, that was exactly what was happening. I remember our producer, Nigel, coming into the Chapel and talking to the girls, asking them to sing it just once where they really felt every single word they were singing. They did just that, and the energy in the chapel was spine tingling. The title of this piece translates as ‘Out of the mouths of innocents’, and I think this really hit home for us all as the girls sang it.
You know me Kristina Arakelyan (b1994)
New music has always been at the heart of my work with the Girls’ Choir—I love the fact that they will often ask if a composer is going to be there at the service, assuming that most of what we sing is by living composers. I think it’s so important that young musicians are exposed to music by living composers as early as possible so that they realise they are part of a living, breathing tradition. As I was planning the music that we would record I was working with Kristina on a couple of different projects—an organ piece and a choral piece—so I was really keen for her to write a piece for the girls. We dreamt this up over tapas in central London and she sent me the score a week later, just before a Girls’ Choir rehearsal. We learnt it straight away, and it was a really magical feeling to watch the choristers’ faces light up as they brought the music to life for the first time. Several of the girls immediately said it was their favourite piece, and they all have the biggest smiles on their faces when they sing it—I think that is partly because they know it is written for them. It was wonderful to introduce them all to Kristina in person during the recording sessions.
Ave Maria Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) / Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
This piece started life not as a vocal piece but as an instrumental chamber work: Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de piano de J S Bach. The story goes that Gounod was at his Paris home in 1852 with his fiancée, Anna Zimmermann, and her composer father, Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann. Gounod improvised a melody over Bach’s Prelude and was overheard by Pierre who rushed into the room and asked him to play it again so that he could transcribe it. The chamber version was then performed at a house concert a few days later and published in 1853. It wasn’t until 1859 that words were first added; initially a short poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, and later Ave Maria. This is a piece that I used to love singing when I was a child, and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since.
Litany to the Holy Spirit Ben Ponniah (b1984)
One of the positives of lockdown was that it gave me plenty of time to trawl the internet for new pieces and composers to add to our repertoire! I first discovered Ben Ponniah’s music via a recording from Selwyn Choir, and found myself quickly falling for his jazz-infused harmonies and ability to construct beautiful musical lines. This piece is a little miniature commissioned by Choir and Organ for the Choir of Saint Thomas Church, NYC in 2018. It has become something of a favourite with our choristers, and we often use it as a chance for our choristers to practise their conducting!
I heard the voice of Jesus say James Devor (b1982)
This was a piece that we first came across when the Girls’ Choir sang a joint service with the Girls’ Choir of Brentwood Cathedral. Their director, Art Wangcharoensab (who happens to be married to one of the altos in our Chapel Choir), commissioned Brentwood’s Assistant Organist, James Devor, to write this anthem for the occasion. One of the things I love about my job is that you never know when you will come across a piece that sticks with you, and I found James’s setting to be particularly beautiful. I hope that recording it might give the piece a life of its own and other choirs might decide to programme it too. There was a particularly lovely moment after the service when we found out that the father of one of our choristers was a chorister at Brentwood, and his old Director of Music was there in the congregation.
Ely Canticles Ben Parry (b1965)
This uplifting setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis was the first set of canticles the girls ever learnt, and was sung at the first Evensong of the Girls’ Choir. The choristers were shocked to learn that there was another composer called Parry, and quickly took to referring to Ben as ‘the real Parry’. This is one of my favourite pieces to conduct because of the smiles that are on the girls’ faces while they are singing it—the positive energy really is infectious. I find the Nunc dimittis to be heartbreakingly beautiful; there is a lovely moment at ‘to be a light’ where the writing suddenly breaks into harmony. I remember us singing this through during a video rehearsal in the first lockdown and one of the girls started crying at that moment because she said that chord made her realise what she was missing by not being able to sing in person. We sang this piece in our first rehearsal back after each lockdown, and there were happy tears every time.
Anna Lapwood © 2022