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Stuart’s recommendation

Stuart, our Director of Music, writes reviews for church music magazines. See if his choice is something to tempt you!

Choral Evensong from Salisbury, Durham and King’s, Cambridge.

PRIORY PRCD 1126: Choral Evensong for Easter Day.
PRIORY 1118: Choral Evensong from Salisbury Cathedral
KGS0011: Evensong Live 2015 from King’s

Given that the daily service of Choral Evensong is a very large part of any cathedral choir’s commitment, it’s not surprising that each year there are CD recordings of the service. We have here recordings from Durham, Salisbury and King’s Cambridge. The Durham contribution is the entire Office of Choral Evensong as might be heard in the cathedral on Easter Day. Salisbury has themed a service loosely around the themes of ‘light’ and ‘living stones’, while King’s has assembled live recordings from services during the 13-14 academic year.

Durham’s CD is suitable festive made up of pieces that have a link with the cathedral. The Easter Acclamation by Conrad Eden, a former organist who retired in the mid 1970s, makes for a good joyous start, after a Howells’ D flat Rhapsody. There is a high proportion of contemporary music here, with Michael Berkeley’s setting of ‘First the sun and then the shadow’ – words by Archbishop Rowan Williams – commissioned by the cathedral. John Casken’s Evening Canticles were commissioned to mark the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north of England. By contrast we are treated to a splendid performance SS Wesley’s Blessed be the God the Father, with particularly assured singing from the treble soloist Nicholas Simper. This CD is a good listen, with confident tuneful singing and firm accompaniment from organists Francesca Massey and David Ratnanayagam, though it is perhaps a more challenging listen for those with traditional tastes. Under James Lancelot’s direction, the music at Durham has gone from strength to strength with the girls taking (on this occasion) the lion’s share of the treble singing.

More traditional fare comes from Salisbury with a more timeless service sung by boy choristers and lay vicars, including music by Walter Alcock, a former steam-train loving organist of the cathedral. There is some spirited singing here, in particular in Sumsion’s setting of the Te Deum in G. Although the performance of Elgar’s Light of the World is able and competent, the Sumsion has more energy and engagement. Being local produce, Walter Alcock’s Evening Canticles in A also have that same élan.

And finally, to King’s College Chapel Cambridge for Evensong Live 2015 and a collection of anthems recorded during actual services, rather than in a series of recording sessions. From the outset, there’s no mistake about the choir and setting. The programme is varied: from at one end of the spectrum, a superb mens’ voices performance of Tallis’s Loquebantur, and Parson’s Ave Maria; to the Magnificat by Giles Swayne and Gorecki’s Totus Tuus. There are also large scale works by Poulenc, Mendelssohn, Parry and Vaughan Williams. Of course, with recordings of live performances you’re going to hear coughs, creaks and other noises off, but that doesn’t take away from the sense of immediacy and extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ that can be absent from bespoke performances to a recording machine; everyone is on their mettle. Mention must be made of Tom Etheridge’s superb performance of Alain’s Litanies, with the final chord resonating around this hallowed space for a full twenty-three seconds.

If there’s one criticism, it’s the lack of variety in the hymns. For example, Salisbury sings all six verses of ‘Bright the vision’ to Redhead’s tune. All verses are SATB except for the last verse in unison; there’s no trace of a descant. The same goes for the hymn singing in Durham’s service.

Each of these CDs is a fair reflection of the venue and Choral Evensong is alive and well. The inclusion of new works, particularly on the Durham CD, certainly gives the lie to any claims that cathedrals are not commissioning new music. In each place these CDs should certainly fly off the shelves in their respective bookshops.