Magnificat 3
George Herbert (organ)
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2022, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK
Signum Classics SIGCD742 [63]

Andrew Nethsingha left St John’s College, Cambridge at the beginning of this year to take charge of the music at Westminster Abbey. Among the many recordings to appear during his Cambridge tenure have figured two entitled ‘Magnificat’. This is the third, and a final volume awaits release. They collect together settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, or Evening Service, sung with all the assurance and skill we expect from this source.

Much has been written about Herbert Howells’s many settings of the Evening Service, and about his uncanny skill at tailoring the music to the acoustic of the building for which it was composed. I leave any discussion of this particular quality to others more competent than I, and will confine myself to drawing attention to the extraordinary variety and breadth of inspiration to be found in his many settings of the same text. Paul Spicer, in his 1998 biography of the composer, singles out the St Paul’s setting as marking out ‘the high tide of his inspiration in setting of these words’, and quotes the composer’s own explanation of the way in which the particular acoustic of the building dictated the nature of the music. Howells admirers will recognise his melodic and harmonic fingerprints as early as the cadence on the words ‘my Saviour’, as well as the highly dramatic setting of the passage beginning ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’. The extensive polyphonic treatment of much of the Nunc Dimittis is also particularly notable.

The Westminster Service is subtitled ‘for the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster’, more generally known as Westminster Abbey. It is dated 1957, but Spicer quotes the composer’s diary to suggest that it was in fact composed in January 1946, while Howells was at his dying mother’s bedside. The flowing tempo and dotted rhythms at the opening of the work lead us to expect something on a less exalted scale than the St Paul’s setting, an impression that can be confirmed when the two are heard one after the other. But this is just as fine, I think, as the St Paul, and one that exists in quite a different harmonic world. ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things’ draws from Howells music of the utmost tenderness, and the two identical Glorias close on an exultantly affirmative chord of F sharp major.

Bryan Kelly’s setting is different indeed! It owes its existence, as do Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, to name only two, to the foresight and imagination of Walter Hussey (1909-1985) who, as Vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton and later Dean of Chichester Cathedral, commissioned so many works of art. I was delighted to find that I had the score, deeply hidden and forgotten since my teens, published by Novello and, I think, included free as a supplement to The Musical Times. At the foot of the first page one reads, almost like a warning: ‘This setting is based on Latin-American rhythms.’ It is, then, high-spirited and joyful, dancing in a way that one wonders about the effect it created in a mid-1960s liturgical setting! The Nunc Dimittis, understandably, is more restrained, but Kelly tacks on to it the same exuberant Gloria as closes the Magnificat. John Rutter, eleven years Kelly’s junior, might well have garnered some inspiration from this splendid short work. A perfectly valid reaction to the text, it is also enormous fun.

Philip Moore was, until his retirement, organist and choral director at York Minster. A prolific composer of mainly sacred and liturgical works, we learn from the booklet that he has made no fewer than 21 settings of the Evening Service. The one included here was composed for St John’s and numerous features set it apart from the other works on this disc. First of all, the use of the chamber organ and the lulling nature of the music give to the work a pronounced meditative quality. Much use is made of solo voices, often in pairs intoning phrases to which the full choir then responds. ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’ brings a change of atmosphere, but even here, with a sprightly dotted rhythm in the organ part, the drama is carefully tempered. The two Glorias are tranquil, and close with particularly beautiful and soothing ‘Amens’.

Kenneth Leighton’s setting was composed for Magdalen College, Oxford. It is firmly tonal, yet considerably more adventurous in its musical language than Moore’s, and the organ part is more interventionist. A deeply spiritual atmosphere is created at the words ‘For behold from henceforth’, and Leighton’s treatment of the words ‘he hath scattered the proud’ leaves the listener in no doubt as to the force of the words. The final phrase, ‘as he promised to our forefathers’, is truly magical. The word ‘defiant’ seems appropriate to describe the Gloria, following which the Nunc Dimittis opens in another world, one of devout prayer. A bold avowal of faith returns for ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’, followed by a powerful passage given out by the organ alone. The Gloria, however, is light and airy, doubts all but vanquished, in complete contrast to that which closes the Magnificat. This is a fine and challenging setting, one that reminds us, if reminder be needed, of what we lost with Kenneth Leighton’s cruelly premature death.

George Dyson was an organist, composer, and Director of the Royal College of Music from 1938 until his retirement in 1952. His setting of the Evening Service takes us into the traditional, and perhaps conservative, world of Church of England liturgical music. Sedate and beautifully crafted, it makes attractive and imaginative use of two soloists. The composer’s response to the words is rather generalised, with but little difference in atmosphere between the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. A satisfying and pleasant listen, modest in scope and aims, it is a world away from Howells or Leighton. Likewise, at least for this listener, the Stanford setting, and that in spite of its forthright homophonic opening. ‘He hath shewed strength’, given to the lower voices, is more forceful, and the Gloria is positively festive, but too many conventional phrase endings and cadences do not make for persuasive listening. The Nunc Dimittis relies to a great extent on unison singing, a lyrical, long-breathed melody again given to the tenors and basses. This setting forms part of Stanford’s Op. 10 that also includes the Morning and Communion Services.

George Herbert provides splendid organ accompaniments throughout, though not in the first work, an unaccompanied setting of the Nunc Dimittis by Pavel Chesnokov, sung in Church Slavonic. His setting is sombre but rises to a huge central climax. Interestingly, for those who recognise and revel in the ‘St John’s sound’, this listener could have been listening to quite another choir during this remarkable and striking work. Thomas Butler is the fine bass who, like the others who take on solo roles, is named in the booklet. It is there, in documentation of truly outstanding quality, that the listener will learn much about Chesnokov and about the whole programme. There is also a thought-provoking essay from The Reverend Lucy Winkett about the texts, their history and their meaning.

William Hedley

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Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944)
Six Choruses for Mixed Voices, Op. 40/4: Nunc Dimittis (1914)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (St Paul’s Service) (1951)
Philip Moore (b. 1943)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense) (2006)
Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense) (1960)
Herbert Howells
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (Westminster Service) (1957)
George Dyson (1883-1964)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in F (1945)
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in B flat (1879)
Bryan Kelly (b. 1934)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in C (1965)