Commissions and Premieres New College Linn CKD720

New College: Commissions and Premieres
Dónal McCann (organ)
Choir of New College, Oxford/Robert Quinney
rec. 2022, New College Chapel, Oxford, UK
Linn CKD720 [57]

Let me first acknowledge choir director Robert Quinney’s informative booklet notes. I found them very helpful in the preparation of my review.

This fine disc of Commissions and Premieres begins with William Harris’s Faire is Heaven,often touted as his masterpiece. It certainly retains its popularity in Quires and Places where they Sing. Harris was organist and choirmaster at New College in 1919-1929. He dedicated this anthem for double choir to his predecessor, Hugh Percy Allen. The text is assembled from Edmund Spenser’s An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty from 1596. In this timeless work, Harris looks back to the era of Tallis and Tompkins, and he is saying farewell to the confident Edwardian Era, destroyed by the Great War. The span of the anthem is in ternary form, moving from the “Faire Heaven” to an “endless perfectness,” by way of “Those eternall burning Seraphins / Which from their faces dart out fiery light…”

Herbert Howells wrote several settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for a variety of ecclesiastical foundations. They were often tailored to the acoustics of the particular building. The liner notes explain that the dry acoustic of the chapel “does not allow for the ethereal atmosphere of the Gloucester or slow-burn grandeur of the St Paul’s Service”. The New College Service is an intimate work, with simple progress. Howells was apparently delighted with it.

Kenneth Leighton dedicated Crucifixus pro nobis for solo tenor (or soprano), choir and organ to David Lumsden and the present choir. The work sets texts by the seventeenth-century poets Patrick Carey and Phineas Fletcher. The deeply felt meditation on the Passion of Christ has four movements: Christ in the cradle, Christ in the Garden, Christ in his Passion, and Hymn subtitled Drop, drop, slow tears. The organ provides support and sometimes even commentary in the first three movements. In the fourth, “musically and verbally the climax” of the piece, the organ is silent and thus allows the choir to bring this beautiful but tragic work to a serene close.

Paul Drayton wrote the second New College Service here. Multitalented Drayton was a pianist, teacher, composer, conductor, author and lecturer. The Magnificat is vibrant, rhythmic and joyful. Nunc dimittis is thoughtful and typically pensive. Despite this introspection, it is unusually long and expansive, complete with two climaxes and a hushed coda. Piquant dissonances add to the numinous quality of this unaccompanied service.

The last three pieces come from this century. The liner notes give little information about Caitlin Harrison’s introit O pastor animarum other than that it sets a text by the German Benedictine abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen. This short piece has delicious harmonies complimenting the “bell-like exchange between sopranos and altos”.

The booklet sums up Deborah Pritchard’s New College Service as “protean”. Its progress does assume different forms and gives much variation of emotion. The Magnificat has a “fluctuating tempo in tandem with the intensity of the harmony and vocal tessitura”. The meditative Nunc dimitis uses gentle counterpoint to create an ageless effect. It is a worthy successor to the services composed by Howells and Drayton.

Toby Young’s O God, make the door of this house sets a text by New College alumnus Thomas Ken (1637-1711). This vibrant anthem uses “pop-inflected rhythm and harmony”. There is a big finish on the “door” being made “the gateway to thine eternal kingdom”. The anthem was premiered in 2016 for the installation of the new warden of the College.

Robert Quinney and the New College Choir give an outstanding performance, and let us not forget the valuable contribution of organist Dónal McCann. The recording, clear and detailed, reflects the spaciousness of the Chapel. Yet, the more intimate moments are no less perfect.

The booklet supplies all the texts. It would have been helpful to have the dates for all the works in the track listing.

This release follows the celebrated choir’s successful disc, also on Linn, of music by “old boy” John Sheppard (review). William of Wykeham founded the College in 1379, so they have a lot of experience. The choir has explored works composed specially for them in the twentieth and twenty-first century. As the CD advert suggests, this “provides a compelling historical tour of changing musical styles and liturgical practices”.

John France

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William Harris (1883-1973)
Faire is Heaven (1925)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
New College Service (1949)
Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Crucifixus pro nobis, Op 38 (1961)
Paul Drayton (b. 1944)
New College Service (1968)
Caitlin Harrison (b. 1996)
O pastor animarum (2022)
Deborah Pritchard (b. 1977)
New College Service (2020)
Toby Young (b. 1990)
O God, make the door of this house (2016)