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New Millennium

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: August 2023
Total duration: 73 minutes 19 seconds

Cover artwork: CERN: CMS Experiment-tracker outer barrel.
With grateful thanks to CERN

Fourteen new choral works, plus four vivacious organ solos, celebrating the stylistic diversity of twenty-first-century composers. Many of these works were commissioned by St John's and here receive their first recordings.

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Andrew Nethsingha’s tenure as Director of Music of St John’s College, Cambridge, has been transformative. Termly evensongs built round Bach cantatas, regular broadcasts (notably of the Advent Carol Service) and a series of ground-breaking CDs have enhanced the already enviable reputation of the Choir of St John’s. Most noteworthy, perhaps, has been Nethsingha’s commitment to new music. Most directors of major choral establishments regularly include premieres in their music lists but few, if any, have been more innovative in the types of music they have commissioned. Over the past fifteen years, Nethsingha has shown that combining voices and organ with instruments not typically heard in Anglican liturgy—saxophone, recorder, cello—has not brought down the walls of the temple. On the contrary, new forms of music have drawn new audiences—and, in some cases, new composers—to the Church.

So it is fitting that one of Nethsingha’s final CDs should be devoted to music of the last twenty years, much of it commissioned by and written for St John’s College. That many of the works heard here are by composers near the beginning of their career and by women—recently admitted, in another major innovation, to the Choir of St John’s—is testament to the outgoing Director of Music’s eagerness to offer opportunities to groups whose voices have not always been heard in the Anglican Church.

Sir James MacMillan’s O give thanks unto the Lord provides a festive opening to this celebration of twenty-first-century music—appropriately so, as it was commissioned by the Friends of Cathedral Music to mark their diamond jubilee in 2016. The words are taken from Psalm 105 and To Music. A Song by Robert Herrick, who matriculated at St John’s College in 1613. The combination of joyful text from the Bible with a short poem that praises music’s soothing powers allows MacMillan to create a loose ternary form: the outer psalm-based sections contain wild syncopations and repetitions—the challenging organ part marked at one point ‘obsessive’—while Herrick’s words are set as a dreamy treble rhapsody supported by soulful harmonies in the lower voices and tremolos in the organ. It has often been noted that MacMillan’s music is informed by his religious faith. Herrick’s verse, though remembered mainly for its high sensuousness, was also deeply rooted in faith. As the poet put it: ‘I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall) of Heaven, and hope to have it after all’.

David Nunn is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Royal Academy of Music; his teachers include Helen Grime and Julian Anderson. Sitivit anima mea is one of two pieces commissioned by Andrew Nethsingha for the Choir of St John’s College, and it was premiered while Nunn was still an undergraduate. Like the MacMillan anthem, Sitivit anima mea draws on the Book of Psalms, in this case Psalm 42. Though it is the second line of the psalm (‘My soul thirsteth [for God]’) that supplies the anthem’s title and the text of the first section, the psalm’s opening, ‘Sicut cervus’ ('Like as the hart'), emerges powerfully towards the end of the piece—unsurprisingly perhaps, given Nunn’s interest in music ‘driven by circular processes’. The anthem, which is written in such a way that it can follow seamlessly from Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, is set for choir and electronics, with the performance of the choral parts sometimes prescribed, sometimes not; ‘at the noise of thy waterspouts’, for example, pits free incantatory repetitions in some voices against co-ordinated chanting in others. The electronic sound is generated entirely from samples of water—Nunn prefers to rely on ‘a single integral and organic idea’ when using electronics—while the combination of chanting voices and electronic textures is designed to generate a meditative state. This reflects Nunn’s stated mission to make contemporary classical music appealing to new audiences.

The music of Judith Weir, appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014, reached a global audience in 2022 with the performance at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II of her setting of Like as the hart. In several respects, Weir’s career parallels that of James MacMillan. Both grew up in Scotland; despite writing in styles that can challenge listeners, both have come to be regarded as establishment figures; and both have cultivated a wide range of genres, while retaining deep sympathy for choral music. Vertue, a meditation on the transience of earthly pleasures, is the first of three short George Herbert poems set by Weir in 2005. The collection was commissioned by the Spitalfields Festival in memory of Peter Lerwill, a generous supporter of the festival and a friend of the composer. Indeed, Weir claimed that the start of Herbert’s final stanza, ‘a sweet and virtuous soul, like season’d timber’, immediately brought Lerwill to mind. The work is structured in what might be termed a textural crescendo, beginning with a solitary voice-part and building to sustained six-part writing, before dying back in the final achingly poignant bars. Weir has compared Vertue to a madrigal, suggesting her goal was to achieve the clearest possible setting of Herbert’s ‘wonderful’ words.

Cedit, hyems ('Be gone, winter') by the American composer Abbie Betinis juxtaposes lines from a hymn by Prudentius with a fourteenth-century text from a manuscript belonging to Benediktbeuern, the Bavarian abbey that gave its name to Orff’s Carmina Burana (literally, songs from Benediktbeuern). Together, the words describe the transition from the darkness of winter to the light associated with the coming of Christ. The work is scored for choir and flute, played here by Anna Ryan. Both are intended to sound uncertain at the outset; according to the composer, the flute should seem lost ‘as it wanders through unpredictable chords’, while the voices are so cold, physically and emotionally, that they can only whisper. As Christ’s love surrounds them, flute and choir gradually cast aside winter’s desolation, and the piece ends in cries of ecstasy.

Vanity of vanities was commissioned in 2016 from Ben Comeau, who had recently graduated from Girton College, Cambridge, after a highly distinguished student career. The anthem sets the adult voices of the choir against the organ and a solo violin part that was performed at the premiere by Stephanie Childress, at the time a Music undergraduate at St John’s. On this recording, the violin is played by Alex Semple, a bass in St John’s Choir and brother of Anna, the composer of Oriens …. The homophonic setting of the words allows the violin scope for different types of material; these include affecting solo lines, extended sections in double stops and virtuosic passagework. The celebrated text from Ecclesiastes that provides the anthem’s title frames words from Isaiah, Psalm 90 and Romans. The result is a type of musical arch: quiet chanting in the outer passages brackets a livelier central section. Comeau’s sensitivity to harmony is evident throughout and, at times, his ability to create powerful expressive effects from very simple material—frequently nothing more than juxtaposed triads—recalls Benjamin Britten.

Piers Connor Kennedy’s O nata lux was written in 2014 in memory of Ian Bell, a bass in the Choir of Worcester Cathedral. Kennedy has specialised in choral music, and much of his output has been written for institutions (including the choirs of Worcester Cathedral, St John’s College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford) of which he was a member. Like Ben Comeau’s Vanity of vanities, O nata lux is scored for lower voices. And, as in Comeau’s anthem, the choral parts are set in homophony. However, Kennedy’s quasi-strophic setting is unaccompanied, evoking Thomas Tallis’s famous setting of the same words. The texture, strictly three-part throughout but marked by frequent suspensions, creates a chaste Renaissance-like effect.

‘Celebration’, for solo organ, is taken from Fiesta!, a suite of seven short movements composed by Iain Farrington in 2003. The composer describes this two-minute movement as being in ‘a bright, jazzy style’ with ‘jumpy, knock-about rhythms, and champagne-popping spirit’. Farrington ranks as one of the most versatile of recent St John’s College organ scholars. Equally at home on organ, piano and harpsichord, he almost certainly enjoyed his largest audience performing alongside Rowan Atkinson at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. Farrington’s compositions have been heard at both the opening and closing concerts of the Proms; in 2022, his work featured at the ‘Earth Prom’ and the Last Night. Through a remarkable series of reworkings of well-known works, he has also gained a reputation as one of the most successful arrangers of his generation.

Janet Wheeler, an alumna of Newnham College, Cambridge, who studied composition with Hugh Wood and Robin Holloway, has devoted much of her life to choral music, both as composer and conductor. Alleluia. I heard a voice is a setting for unaccompanied choir of two verses from Revelation 19 familiar to church musicians through Thomas Weelkes’s famous setting. At times, Wheeler’s version appears to nod to Renaissance models, but it is unmistakably a product of our age, not least in the unusually restrained, almost Stravinskian way in which Wheeler treats the word ‘Alleluia’ in the opening and closing sections. The anthem begins and ends on middle C, creating the impression of a loose palindrome. Almost entirely diatonic in language though with a subtle palette of dissonance, Alleluia. I heard a voice becomes more animated in its central section; this is built round a series of rhythmically sprung lines that use ostinatos, imitation and, sometimes, canon.

The second Judith Weir composition on this recording, Leaf from leaf Christ knows, is a setting of a poem in eight short stanzas by Christina Georgina Rossetti. Each of the stanzas focuses on one attribute of Christ, and Weir’s choral parts reflect the studied naivety of Rossetti’s lines, exploring patently expressive registers only occasionally. The organ part mixes quasi-formulaic rhythms with arabesques, the latter seeming to win out, only for the final bar to end on an ambiguous note.

Leaf from leaf is followed by ‘Conversations’, the second movement of Iain Farrington’s Fiesta!. Again, the composer provides a memorable description: this sparkling miniature, he notes, depicts the ‘lively natterings and gossipings’ of individuals who argue and laugh about life. Much of the movement’s wit derives from the way in which the interlocutors, while slipping in and out of different tonal areas, keep returning to the same pitch, G—a conversational point de repère, one might suggest.

Abbie Betinis’s ‘Aeterna lux, divinitas’, a setting of an eighteenth-century hymn from the Liturgia Horarum, is the first of two short pieces issued under the title Carmina mei cordis ('Songs of my heart'). As the composer explains, because the text invokes the unity of the Trinity, the music modulates initially between two main tonal centres which ultimately amalgamate to form a third: ‘in the end, all modalities combine into a canon which spirals on, encircling and unifying all voice parts in its course’. The final bars are dominated by the word ‘Alleluia’, added by Betinis to the traditional Catholic hymn text to create a type of refrain.

Since graduating from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 2018, Anna Semple has pursued a dual career as freelance singer and composer; she has already had commissions from the Royal Opera House and the Edington Music Festival. The solo organ piece Oriens … was composed for the 2021 Advent Carol Service, and was premiered by George Herbert, who appears here as soloist. (St John’s has also recorded a Nunc dimittis by Semple for choir and solo violin; this was commissioned by Choir and Organ and will appear in the album Magnificat 4, to be released in 2024.) The harmonic language of Oriens … is marked by the recurrent use of adjacent notes; despite the use of dissonance, the piece is generally meditative in character—a feature that can be ascribed in part to references to the Advent-tide chant ‘O oriens’ that emerge only to disappear almost immediately. The notation allows the performer some freedoms: the score includes unspecified rhythms and motivic cells looped ad libitum.

Sophie Westbrooke came to prominence as a finalist in the 2014 BBC Young Musician competition. Though also a pianist and violinist, she competed on the recorder, an instrument that has featured only rarely in the competition. She went on to read Music at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Quiet stream was commissioned for St John’s Choir and first performed in 2020 with the composer as soloist. The text is taken from a notebook entry written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802, while he was living in the Lake District. Westbrooke’s setting translates Coleridge’s coupling of nature and the divine into music of hushed rapture. The scoring, with the recorder effectively taking the place of the trebles, hints at transcendence, and the music offers a highly atmospheric mix of instrumental flourishes with awe-struck ‘ahs’ in the voice parts.

Francis Pott’s organ piece Laudes, like so many works on this CD, was commissioned by St John’s College. It was premiered by Edward Picton-Turbervill in a 2014 BBC Radio 3 live broadcast. The composer, an alumnus of Magdalene College, Cambridge, revealed that the work, composed in a single sitting, was designed to fill the short gap between the end of the service and the start of the next programme. However, the title, which translates as ‘praises’, allows for performance in many contexts. The composition’s harmonic language is dominated by perfect fourths and fifths, but varied textures allied to unpredictable rhythms avoid any sense of the routine. With its brief hints of recapitulation, the work references the divisions of a traditional sonata form but, according to Pott, it ‘should feel like a single sustained exhalation’.

Salvator mundi, Domine was commissioned in 2021 from Alexander Hopkins, who was a bass in the St John’s Choir at the time. The text is taken from a Sarum plainsong hymn traditionally associated with Christmas Eve and the service of Compline. Scored for divided alto, tenor and bass voices a cappella, Salvator mundi Domine uses overlapping parts to create a wash of sound from which passages in rhythmic unison sometimes emerge. Viewed as a whole, the composition traces a path from B major to F major, an extreme progression designed, perhaps, to reflect the long Advent journey from darkness to light. Is this an echo of Part II of J S Bach’s Clavierübung, where the keys of B minor and F major are used to represent the fundamental difference in style between a French overture and an Italian concerto?

David Nunn’s oh pristine example, like Sitivit anima mea, was commissioned for the Choir of St John’s College. Both works make use of electronics, and both move between metred music and free sections that, in the words of the composer, can resemble ‘timeless islands or oases, constantly shimmering and never static’. The text of oh pristine example is macaronic, comprising extracts from Isaiah and Revelation in Vulgate Latin and the final words, in English, of A Rushed Account of the Dew by Alice Oswald, Oxford University’s first female Professor of Poetry. By invoking the idea of water in a dry land, the two Biblical passages promise a type of resurrection. And, though ostensibly about morning dew, Oswald’s words form, according to Nunn, ‘a striking analogy for the Lenten story of Jesus’s death on Good Friday’. Initially, the Latin extracts are set in a combination of free-form melisma and incantatory imitation built round rising fifths; the English words, in contrast, are presented in simple parallel movement. However, the choral parts are gradually subsumed into what the composer has called ‘an immersive electronic texture’ formed from sounds of seashells, dropping bullet shells, wind chimes, a reverberating church bell and a music box that, in the final section, is heard ‘chiming out’.

Since graduating from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, in 2001, Cheryl Frances-Hoad has established a reputation as one of the leading composers of her generation. Her oeuvre, which embraces genres from opera and concerto to works for solo instruments, has reached wide audiences: career highlights include an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week and a BBC Proms debut in 2015. A Blessing was written as a memorial to Ken Hutchinson, an admired teacher from Frances-Hoad’s native Essex. The text is an abbreviated version of the passage in the Book of Numbers known as the Priestly Blessing or Aaronic Blessing; the setting is texturally simple but harmonically subtle.

Iain Farrington’s Nova! Nova! was commissioned by Andrew Nethsingha for his last Advent Carol Service at St John’s and premiered in November 2022. A virtuosic tour de force that has the makings of a choral classic, Nova! Nova! requires the singers to click fingers, stamp feet, clap hands and negotiate verbal repetitions at breath-taking speed, while co-ordinating with a rhythmically far-from-predictable organ part. Not everything in this setting of the traditional fifteenth-century text has performers (and listeners) on the edge of their seats: a central section built round the story of the Annunciation provides a moment of relative calm. However, the overall effect is one of extreme exhilaration. A fitting conclusion to an energising journey through twenty years of new sacred music.

Martin Ennis © 2023

Contemporary music and Commissioning have been central features of the last fifteen years at St John’s. It’s been a joy to work with talented student composers, singers and instrumentalists; my own musicianship has been greatly enriched by their creativity and energy. As on several previous discs, I am grateful to Martin Ennis for his insightful writing about the music. I’m embarrassed by his kind and flattering words at the start; I tried to persuade him to tone them down! At this time the spotlight should not be on me but on my excellent successor, Christopher Gray. I’m delighted that the College has chosen another person who is committed to commissioning new music. Although I’ve now left Cambridge, I feel it’s important for the composers—and for the 2022 generation of superlative singers and instrumentalists—that their work should be preserved for posterity through recording.

After a 30-month break from sessions during the pandemic, we were very pleased to be able to record again in 2022. The material on this album comes from various times of year, whilst we were also continuing our Magnificat series. For the final sessions in December the outdoor temperature was forty degrees colder than it had been for the previous recording in July! The personnel of the lower voices had also largely changed, but I hope you will hear a successful continuity of sound-world. All the composers are alive today but, at the suggestion of one of them, we have omitted dates of birth so as not to intrude on their privacy. I’ve curated a sequence of music which aims to celebrate some of the broad range of styles in 21st-century choral writing. The premiere of Iain Farrington’s Nova! Nova! was the final piece in my last St John’s broadcast—I have often enjoyed pushing the boundaries of the Anglican choral tradition!

It’s been very enjoyable to choose the cover designs for our series; I’ll miss our search for interesting circles in the future! The Large Hadron Collider (L.H.C.) has been much discussed with my academic colleagues in College—an iconic example of 21st-century science to complement our 21st-century music. The L.H.C. is the world’s highest-energy particle collider, situated in a tunnel of 17-mile circumference beneath the France/Switzerland border. We thank the authorities at CERN for giving us permission to use this striking image; they have been supportive of the educational aspect of our project. The image is of the Experiment Tracker Outer Barrel whilst it is being cleaned. (It would be frivolous to push the analogy too far, but it is the L.H.C. which enables research into the Higgs Boson, colloquially known as the god particle …)

Generous rehearsal time and exactly the same singers each day—these things contribute to St John’s being an ideal place for performing contemporary liturgical music. I was still nervous about commissioning when I arrived at St John’s, following a bad experience fifteen years earlier. Early on in Cambridge I was grateful to be given two wonderful catalysts for commissioning. One was St John’s being invited by Choir & Organ to be their inaugural New Music partners in 2010. The other was an anonymous donor coming forward in 2007 to sponsor commissions for our annual Advent broadcasts. I’m pleased to say that all but one of these fifteen Advent pieces will have appeared on St John’s recordings by the end of 2023, following the release of new works by Frances-Hoad and Grime. The exception is Ben Comeau’s The Last and Greatest Herald, a fine work which I’d planned to record if I’d not been leaving.

Had I stayed in Cambridge I would have completed a recording project made up of pieces we were commissioning based on themes relating to Water. The present album’s works by Nunn and Westbrooke were written for this purpose. Other new works in the project, which have sadly remained unrecorded, have been written by Lara Weaver, Anna Semple and Piers Conor Kennedy. In rehearsals I often ask the choristers to try to make their sound glisten like the sun shining on rippling water. The fragment of text in Sophie Westbrooke’s piece seems to epitomise what we liturgical musicians strive to do every day—to evoke a sense of the divine:

Quiet stream, with all its eddies,
and the moonlight playing on them,
quiet as if they were
Ideas in the divine mind anterior to the Creation

Andrew Nethsingha © 2023

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