Magazine article Gramophone

Music for Choral Evensong: Often Conceived for Specific Choirs and Sound Spaces, Recordings of Choral Evensong Can Capture Unique Moments in Time and There Are Many Fine Discs to Treasure

Magazine article Gramophone

Music for Choral Evensong: Often Conceived for Specific Choirs and Sound Spaces, Recordings of Choral Evensong Can Capture Unique Moments in Time and There Are Many Fine Discs to Treasure

Article excerpt

A part from Gothic vaults and Great East Windows, Choral Evensong is arguably the Church of England's greatest asset these days, and a reason why cathedrals, college chapels and other places where choirs sing still flourish while most parish churches struggle. So although its music might be niche, it isn't negligible. And although its specialist composers--Stanford, Sumsion, Bairstow and their like, through to the master of the genre, Herbert Howells--may not be giants on the world stage, they have their place. A place where more wide-ranging figures such as Walton, Tippett and Britten (who was so steeped in Anglican culture he should have written more church music than he did) were sometimes pleased to join them.

Capturing the Evensong experience on disc, though, is a problem. This is music often written for specific buildings and the sound of a specific choir, which will itself reflect the built environment it serves. So atmosphere and space, the sense of an ecclesiastical acoustic, is important. But too spacious and the detail disappears in sonic mire.

Then there's the question of how faithfully you reproduce the service. CDs of the whole thing--readings, prayers, responses, psalms and all--make interesting souvenirs but not repeated listening. Extracting the core repertoire works better. And core repertoire at Evensong is focused on the evening canticles: Magnificat (the song of a young woman, Mary, looking forward to the birth of Christ) and Nunc dimittis (the song of an old man, Simeon, ready for death now that his life has been fulfilled by Christ).

The Mag and Nunc, as choirboys call them, fit so comfortably together that they're almost always set to music as a pair. And for enthusiasts, there's an exhaustive 21-disc set of some 200 pairings on the Priory label recorded by a cross-section of English cathedral/collegiate choirs, plus one contribution from that exotic outpost of High Anglicanism, St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York. Otherwise, recorded Mags and Nunes come generally in mixed CDs of English choral music, with a commendable series on Naxos that anyone drawn to this sound world should explore.

Choosing a top 10 hasn't been a scientific process: custom, memories and prejudice weigh heavily on music for the church. But these are CDs I've enjoyed, and that will open up a quietly treasurable corner of the repertoire.

(10) Canticles from St Paul's

St Paul's Cathedral Choir / Andrew Carwood

Hyperion [F] CDA68058 (9/14)

St Paul's has an impossible acoustic for recording but this disc deals with it surprisingly well. Standard settings like Walmisley's in D minor come across in strong, incisive terms. Best of all is a spectacular account of Tippett's 1962 Mag and Nunc, written for St John's, Cambridge, and in thrall to a particular stop on the organ there: a brazen Trompetta Real which inspired the composer to music that, in the right hands, can startle any congregation out of stupor.

(9) Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey Choir / James O'Donnell

Hyperion [F] CDA67557

A tour through the three main services--Matins, Mass and Evensong--on a key day in the Church's year, done with an unparalleled distinction (not least from the boy trebles) that establishes the Abbey Choir as the best you'll currently hear in church performance. Howells's rarely recorded Westminster Service fills most of the Evensong section, with a robust Stainer anthem. But also listen out for Francis Grier's exquisite Missa Trinitatis Sanctae.

(8) Stanford: Anthems and Services

St John's College Choir / Christopher Robinson

Naxos [B] 8 555794 (7/03)

A key issue from the Naxos choral series, recorded in 2002 when the choir was on a serious high (with Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and Andrew Staples among its choral scholars). Stanford's sturdily Edwardian idiom is softened by a sensitivity and warmth in the C major Evening Service. …

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