Kenneth Leighton's music is at the heart of English Cathedral repertoire," so says the introduction to Hyperion's earlier disc of the composer's choral music from Wells Cathedral (CDA67641). During the couple of years I spent in Oxford it certainly seemed that way. I can remember quite vividly that his music often featured at choral evensong and other services, and I especially remember a performance given by the Choir of Magdalen College in which they sung the piece that Leighton had composed for them, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis 'Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense', absolutely magical.
This is in fact the third disc devoted to the cathedral music of Leighton released by Hyperion. Whilst the disc mentioned above does not duplicate any of the music featured on this new disc, the earliest, which featured the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral, and which is now on their budget price Helios label (CDH55195), does, indeed duplicate half the music presented here. Don't let that deter you from investigating this new disc. Good though the earlier disc is, and I will never be without out it, in the twenty-four years since it was recorded, tastes and performing practices seem to have changed, not least when it comes to tempos.
The disc opens with the finest recording I have heard of Leighton's first attempt at a Mag and Nunc, the 'Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense'. It makes me long to be back in Oxford. This is followed by excellent recordings of a couple of short pieces. Then comes the Missa Brevis, where once again the Trinity College Choir shines. The organ interlude is in the form of the Ite, missa est from the Missa de Gloria, also known as the Dublin Festival Mass, a forty minute organ work based on a twelfth century Salisbury Chant for Easter Day. It's virtually identical in timing to my copy of Dennis Townhill's recording of the complete organ works on Priory (PRCD 326), but with a crisper and more defined recording. The second half of this choral feast begins with the wonderful What love is this of thine?, which is one of my favourites of the composer's choral works, and the Second Service. This setting of the Mag and Nunc comes twelve years after his first for Magdalen College, and as a result the setting is more representative of Leighton's mature and more individual style, an excellent work. The final work is the ever popular Crucifixus pro nobis, a wonderful piece of choral writing with a solo tenor part here sung by Andrew Kennedy. Of the four versions I own this new one has quickly become my first choice. It is not just a question of tempos as mentioned above, but also one of interpretation, as I find Kennedy's singing of the solo part preferable to the others—a beautiful end to an exceptional disc.
All the performers, whether singers or organists are on really fine form, with Stephen Layton certainly bringing out the best from his forces. Ted Tregear's booklet notes, which were compiled with the assistance of the composer's daughter Angela, give a good insight into the life of the composer and his music. The recorded sound is also first rate. The engineers have captured the performances in a sympathetic and pleasing acoustic, which is no mean feat when you realise that most of the music was recorded in the cavernous space of Lincoln Cathedral.