St Paul's Cathedral Choir gives us here a really fine and outstandingly sung collection of canticles, some of them quite familiar and others decidedly not. In addition, 'canticles' does not refer only to the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; we also hear settings of the Benedicite, the Te Deum and the Jubilate.
The order of tracks as it stands makes a satisfying programme, but just as interesting would be to listen through chronologically, following the order of Andrew Carwood's exceedingly detailed and interesting booklet notes. Thus, one would begin with Walmisley in D minor, a set of Evensong canticles written at a time when, as Carwood observes, 'church music in England was in a parlous state'. Against that background, it is possible to appreciate Walmisley's achievement in a way that one might possibly not otherwise, his style, while not undramatic, being rather staid rhythmically. It is also thus easier to recognize the great achievements of Stanford, born some half a centrury later. He wears his learning lightly in the B flat service: as in all his settings, the 'Magnificat' is splendidly conceived formally (Carwood compares it to a scherzo) and melodically inventive and memorable in a way that was beyond Walmisley's ability, and the lushness of the 'Nunc dimittis' would simply have never crossed the earlier composer's mind as a possibility.
I don't quite share Carwood's view of Gray's unaccompanied double-choir canticles in F minor, but then again, they are certainly not 'blasted rot', as Elgar characterised Gray's work, and in many respects they are extremely original. The dramatic qualities of Wood in F are brought out to perfection here, though the alternations of character in the Magnificat always seem to me to overstep the bounds of liturgical music in a way that Stanford, say, never did. Drama, on the other hand, was exactly what was required of Walton in his powerful and tightly-composed Coronation Te Deum, and Tippett's canticles, from 1962, are possibly the ne plus ultra of such an approach. Difficult though they are, they are superbly sung here (with magnificent contributions from organist Simon Johnson). A special word of praise, too, for solo treble Theo Nisbett's outstanding singing in the Nunc dimittis.
After the Tippett, Malcolm Archer's Benedicite seems decidedly tame, though perfectly useful liturgically, but Alex Roth's Jubilate is a real discovery. The influence of his Gamelan studies in Indonesia is clearly audible, but so too is his command of the choral idiom: a refreshing work that brings both past and future together.