new millennium signum

New Millennium
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
George Herbert (organ)
Anna Ryan (flute); Alex Semple (violin); Sophie Westbrooke (recorder)
rec. 2022, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Texts & English translations included
Signum Classics SIGCD750 [73]

Andrew Nethsingha left his post as Organist and Master of the Choristers at St John’s College, Cambridge in December 2022 to take up a similar position at Westminster Abbey; he had been at the College since autumn 2007. When he left there were still some unissued recordings in the pipeline and this album is one such.

It has been a defining feature of Nethsingha’s time at St John’s that he made significant efforts to expand both the choir’s own repertoire, and the literature of ecclesiastical choral music more generally, by encouraging the choir to sing new music by contemporary composers; a good number of these pieces were commissioned by St John’s College. Nethsingha selected music by both established composers and young composers who were just starting out on their creative careers. This album focuses entirely on music composed since the turn of the present century. No fewer than 8 of the 16 items are pieces commissioned by St John’s College.

I’ll come to the new commissions presently. Let’s focus firstly on the pieces which were not specifically composed for St John’s.  

The programme opens in thrilling fashion with James MacMillan’s O give thanks unto the Lord. The piece is a setting of verses from Psalm 105 together with some lines from ‘To Music. A Song’ by Robert Herrick. Though this isn’t one of the St John’s commissions, there is a link with the college: I learned from the excellent notes by Dr Martin Ennis that Herrick matriculated at St Johns in 1613. Herrick’s words act as a calm, meditative central section. However, before that MacMillan sets the Psalm verses to music of huge energy. The strikingly independent organ part is very exciting and the choir’s music is exuberant. I love the way that at the close of the calm Herrick section the organ leads us to a reprise of the opening music via quiet chords alternating with allusions to the organ writing which we heard at the outset.  O give thanks unto the Lord is a fantastic piece which the choir and organist George Herbert perform with verve and great conviction.

There are two pieces by Dame Judith Weir, Vertue, which I’ve heard before, is an a cappella setting of poetry by George Herbert. It’s a beautiful composition in which Weir certainly realises her stated aim of setting the words with the maximum clarity. Later in the programme, we hear Leaf from leaf Christ knows. In this piece the choir is accompanied by the organ. As a purely subjective reaction, I don’t find that the music exerts quite the same appeal as does Vertue but I’m sure others will appreciate it with greater understanding than I have so far done. The American composer Abbie Betinis is also represented by two pieces. In Cedit, Hyems (‘Be gone, winter!’) the choir is accompanied by a solo flute (here, the excellent Anna Ryan, who plays with great agility).  The piece begins slowly and in a mood of hesitancy. However, as the anonymous medieval text begins to anticipate the coming of Christ, the music bursts into life and the piece becomes a joyful dance. The other piece, Aeterna lux, divinitas is the first of two pieces which Betinis composed under the collective title Carmina mei cordis. This time, the choir is unaccompanied and the composer takes an interesting approach to her chosen text, an eighteenth-century hymn; a lot of the words are delivered in a staccato-like fashion.

Piers Connor Kennedy’s O nata lux was not written for St John’s but I understand from the notes that he has sung with the choir at some time in his career to date. The setting is for ATB choir. I loved this piece. It’s simple in style yet dignified, and the harmonic language is beautiful. Kennedy wrote the piece in memory of a bass member of the Worcester Cathedral choir (another choir with which Kennedy has sung). Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s A Blessing is similarly a memorial piece. She set an abbreviated form of the familiar words from the Book of Numbers (‘May the Lord bless you and keep you’). As with the Kennedy piece, the style is quite simple but the harmonic language is rich and expressive. This short piece is both lovely and touching. I’ve previously heard and been impressed by one or two pieces by Janet Wheeler. Her Alleluia, I heard a voice is for unaccompanied choir. It starts slowly and softly, but after a while the music becomes vigorous and joyful before achieving a hushed close. The text, from the Book of Revelation, is celebratory but Wheeler’s use of subdued music at the start and finish of her piece is an original approach to the words. This is an impressive setting.

The only other music on the disc which was not written specifically for St John’s is some organ music by Iain Farrington, a former Organ Scholar at the college. We hear two short movements, ‘Celebration’ and ‘Conversations’ from his seven-movement organ work Fiesta (2003). ‘Celebration’ is jazzy and extrovert; we shall encounter Farrington in this kind of mood again later in the programme. ‘Conversations’ is, in the composer’s own description, the “lively natterings and gossipings” of people in discussion with each other. The music is light on its feet and witty, requiring nimble finger work from the organist. Geoge Herbert gives splendid performances of both pieces.

Herbert is at the console, too, for Laudes byFrancis Pott, a piece which was commissioned by St John’s. I’ve heard and greatly admired a lot of Pott’s organ music, not least the mighty Christus. Here, he’s in extrovert vein. This short piece is exciting and energetic; Herbert’s virtuoso playing is full of drive and brio.

The other St John’s commissions are all in the form of choral pieces. David Nunn, who contributes two of the pieces is, judging by his photograph in the booklet, a fairly recent Cambridge graduate. (Andrew Nethsingha tells us that, at the suggestion of one composer, all dates of birth have been omitted in order not to intrude on anyone’s privacy. Whilst not disrespecting that, I regret that decision. I think it’s very helpful to a listener – especially a reviewer – to be able to ‘place’ a composer in time and, indeed, in terms of how long they have been active as a composer.) Both of Nunn’s pieces use electronics to accompany the choir. In Sitivit anima mea he sets verse from Psalm 42. The music is very atmospheric and intriguing. I gather from the booklet that the piece is so written that it can follow “seamlessly” from Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus. However, even though, as I say, I find the piece intriguing, it doesn’t move me and, in addition, one or two reservations arise. One is that the words are largely unintelligible, something which I don’t think is the fault of the choir, whose diction is elsewhere very clear. The other is a more practical issue. The choral writing sounds very challenging to me and I wonder how many cathedral/collegiate choirs would be able to devote sufficient rehearsal time to master the music. Furthermore, how many churches will wish to organise the electronics, which are so crucial to the work, for a piece that lasts about 6 ½ minutes? Similar questions arise over oh pristine example which is also for choir and electronics. Here, Nunn fuses together fragments from Isaiah and the Book of Revelation and some lines by a contemporary poet, Alice Oswald. I’ve not yet got to grips with how the scriptural words and the poetic text fit together; frankly, I doubt I ever will.

Nunn is not the only composer about whose music practical considerations arise. Sophie Westbrooke’s piece, Quiet Stream is for choir and recorder; here, the composer herself plays the recorder part, which sounds to be quite demanding. Though the music is interesting – and the recorder definitely adds an extra dimension – I have to wonder, again, how many choirs will take it up. Apart from anything else, any choir intending to sing it will need to involve a very able recorder player.

Another piece that involves a solo instrument, in this case a violin, is Ben Comeau’s Vanity of Vanities. As in the Westbrooke piece, the solo violin adds an extra dimension and a notable extra texture in addition to the choir and organ. The importance of the violin is magnified because Comeau has opted to set his chosen text, drawn from a variety of scriptural sources, to music that can best be described as harmonised chant. Furthermore, he only uses ATB voices. All of this, plus the way he writes for the organ, gives the music a dark hue with which the very active violin contrasts very effectively. This is an imaginative piece. The violin is played by Alex Semple, who elsewhere sings as a bass in the St John’s choir. By a pleasing piece of symmetry, he is the brother of Anna Semple, whose organ piece, Oriens…was commissioned for the 2021 Advent Carol Service at St Johns. Then, as on this disc, it was played by George Herbert. Semple takes her cue from one of the ‘Great O’ Advent antiphons (‘O Oriens’) and towards the end of the piece, fragments of the plainchant to which the antiphon is sung can be clearly discerned in her music. The piece as a whole is meditative and though there’s a good deal of dissonance in the music, this is gently voiced in this subtle composition.

We’ve heard a few pieces scored for ATB voices and that’s the case also with Alexander Hopkins’ Salvator mundi, Domine. Hopkins was a bass in the choir in 2021-2022; since his piece was recorded in April 2022, I presume he sang on the recording. The text he set is part of the Office of Compline on Christmas Eve. The voices are unaccompanied and by eschewing treble voices Hopkins invests his music with a dark, nocturnal atmosphere. I love the way the voice parts often overlap and then the text is passed from one voice part to another. It’s a fascinating composition, not least because the harmonic language is so interesting.

James MacMillan’s piece opened the programme in an exciting fashion and Iain Farrington supplies a very different but equally exciting conclusion. Nova, nova was commissioned for Andrew Nethsingha’s last Advent Carol Service at St John’s in December 2022. The traditional 15th century English text concerns the Annunciation but, my goodness, Farrington’s music gives the medieval words a contemporary twist, not least through the Blues inflection he imparts to the choir’s melodic lines. The piece explodes with rhythmic energy and requires precision articulation from the choir. In the middle verses Farrington relaxes the pace a little but I love the cheeky way that the organ then leads us back to the exuberant music with which the piece began. Along the way, the choir is not only required to sing with vitality but also to click their fingers, stamp their feet and clap their hands. Throw in a high-spirited organ part and you have a recipe for an exuberant, celebratory piece. I bet the choir had great fun learning it. I bet also that the congregation at the carol service had great difficulty in refraining from applause at the end of the piece. It’s an exhilarating conclusion to this programme.

This generously filled disc offers a series of fascinating pieces, all performed to the highest possible standard. If I have reservations about a few of the items, I should stress that they are entirely personal. I suspect it’s inevitable that in a collection of 18 contemporary works there will be a handful that will not appeal to each listener – and every listener will make different choices. Much more important is the fact that so many contemporary composers are writing new, high-quality music for the liturgical repertoire; that’s a cause for celebration. It’s also something for which we should be grateful to Andrew Nethsingha and St John’s College, Cambridge, who have done so much to encourage this enrichment of the repertoire. Anyone who cares about the role of music in the liturgy today should hear this disc.

As ever with recordings from this source, production values are high. Though producer Chris Hazell was a constant presence throughout the project, three separate engineering teams were involved across the three sets of sessions. Between them, they have achieved excellent and consistent results; the choir and organ are incisively recorded. The booklet includes a very fine essay about the music by Dr Martin Ennis and a shorter but equally worthwhile postscript by Andrew Nethsingha.

There is, I believe, one more recording to come from Nethsingha and the choir; that’s to be a fourth collection of Evening Canticles, Magnificat 4. I await that with keen anticipation. For now, though, New Millennium is an important addition to their discography.

John Quinn

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Sir James MacMillan
– O give thanks unto the Lord (2016) 
David Nunn – Sitivit anima mea * 
Dame Judith Weir – Vertue I: Vertue (2005)
Abbie Betinis – Cedit, Hyems 
Ben Comeau – Vanity of Vanities * (2016)
Piers Connor Kennedy – O nata lux (2014) 
Iain Farrington – Celebration (2003) 
Janet Wheeler – Alleluia, I heard a voice 
Dame Judith Weir – Leaf from leaf Christ knows 
Iain Farrington – Conversations (20030
Abbie Betinis – Carmina mei cordis I: Aeterna lux, divinitas 
Anna Semple – Oriens… * (2021)
Sophie Westbrooke – Quiet Stream *(2020) 
Francis Pott – Laudes * (2014) 
Alexander Hopkins – Salvator mundi, Domine * (2021)
David Nunn – oh pristine example *
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – A Blessing 
Iain Farrington – Nova, nova * (2022)

* Commissioned for the College Choir