Christmas presents a golden opportunity to present brand new music to wide audiences, and the role played by St John’s College Choir in this area has been significant, as demonstrated by new recording of traditional and contemporary choral works. The recording features Michael Finnissy’s John the Baptist, written for the Choir for its BBC Advent broadcast in 2014.
Featuring ambitious and accomplished music for voices and viols, ‘Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems’ offers a privileged glimpse of a special moment in English music history. The four-part viol fantasies complement Phantasm’s previous recording of Ward’s five- and six-part works and show an equally fluent and skilful style exemplifying Jacobean consort fantasy at its best. The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford join Phantasm to perform Ward’s verse anthems which contain an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of textures and generous word painting amidst a polyphonic swirl of viols.
2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion starts celebrating early with this disc of two of the composer’s most popular choral works, both with a Christmas relevance. The cantata Saint Nicolas tells the story of the original ‘Santa Claus’, a fourth-century saint whose acts—revitalizing three boys who had been pickled by an unscrupulous landlord being among the more dramatic—led to his canonization as patron saint of children and sailors. Britten’s lively setting is distinctly operatic, full of incident and colour—with the story brought ‘home’ through the use of congregational hymns. The part of Nicolas (here sung magnificently by Allan Clayton, already acclaimed as the heir to Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson) is one of Britten’s great heroic tenor roles.
On this disc, the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge performs alongside four soloists and the period instrument ensemble St John’s Sinfonia. The tenor Sam Furness and bass George Humphreys both started their careers as Choral Scholars with this very choir. The mezzo-soprano Frances Bourne is in great demand on the concert platform and has sung with many of Europe’s leading conductors; the soprano Susan Gritton has amassed a vast discography that has earned her two Grammy nominations and includes, for Chandos, recordings of works by Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams.
The latter half of the sixteenth century and the first quarter of the seventeenth produced in Europe a remarkable array of composers, who by their artistry and invention developed polyphonic music to its full glory. The greatest of the English composers of the period was William Byrd (1543-1623) who, though important as an instrumental composer, was primarily a composer of church music. A variety of styles is to be found in Byrd's work, yet in his choral music he consistently shows a keen response to the mood and to the natural inflection of the words that he sets. In this respect it is interesting to compare a few of his settings with those of some of his great contemporaries on the continent.
Compilations are highly useful in understanding the works of the inexhaustibly tuneful British composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He had a few big hits, like the Funeral Music for Queen Mary (which is included here) and the opera Dido and Aeneas (which isn't). But much of his best music is scattered around in small bits, residing within genres that are rather odd from today's perspective. Purcell spent much of his short adult life as a theater composer, and his incidental music, for example, is filled with perfect miniatures…