Reviews

GMCD 7158 – Magnificat, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Music

The Choir of Lincoln College Oxford, David Terry – Director, Benjamin Nicholas – Organ

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Cathedral Music – Summer 1999

Stanford once famously remarked of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius that it reeked of incense, and we may possible be in the same basilica here. The sleeve puts the Blessed Virgin very much at centre stage and on the inner reverse we have no lesser person than the Pope pictured with the choir and nestling happily among the sopranos. He appears again on page 3 of the booklet offering a Pontifical Wave and confirming that, as far as this CD is concerned, we are on our way to Rome. But enough of all that! A casual glance at the CD title may lead to the conclusion that here is another recorded list of evening canticle settings but it is far from that. It represents a well conceived and executed whole; a project which illustrates episodes from the life of the Virgin as set to music by composers down the ages. The booklet gives the framework, arranging the pieces around the stages of the life and the several feasts as celebrated by the Church. The programme note by Dr. John Caldwell further groups the pieces according to the periods of their composition, and there is certainly a vast array to choose form. The choir sings well throughout the duration of the disc, although I have to say that occasionally I found the soprano tone a little over enthusiastic and lacking in control. There are some wonderful variations of mood with well produced contrasts of light and shade: this is well illustrated in the Bruckner at the beginning of the CD. Most of the music is unaccompanied but Benjamin Nicholas also shows off his organ to good advantage, particularly when he gets on to the reeds. This is especially so in the Dupré – what a superb piece this is – but there are also some wonderfully exciting moments in the Schubert and also the Widor (the latter being the only track on the CD devoted purely to the organ). Guild again provides good value with no less tha 18 tracks and over 70 minutes of recorded music. I think they will feel well pleased with the CD that they have produced. Go on the – get hold of a copy and put i on the turntable. It will help if you can borrow a biretta to wear while you are listening.
Harry Winter

From Choir and Organ September/October 1999 – Page 68

Nuggets Of gold

It’s good to see that some of the less well known ( I hold back from saying lesser) Oxbridge College Choirs are recording CDs these days. It’s also heartening to see that individual colleges are taking pride in their musical alumni to the extent of encouraging them to give concerts, go on tour and produce fine recordings every so often.
These two CDs hail from John Wesley’s old alma mater, Lincoln College, Oxford. Being the less than proud possessors of probably the dullest instrument in Christendom, both CDs were recorded in Exeter College’s Chapel next door. A little over a year separates the discs but there are a few of the same singers on both and overall the sound the choir makes is not terribly dissimilar.
The first is a cornucopia of music written in honour of the Blessed Virgin. The repertoire is thoroughly predictable and very sweetly sung throughout, though sometimes too much so. I am pleased to be able to report that this is one of a few collegiate CDs where the bottom end of the choir makes an uncharacteristically mature sound. Refreshing in this type of recording where so often the romantic repertoire is the ‘achilles heel’ of so many youthful aspirations. Benjamin Nicholas’ accompaniment is mature throughout, though Howells’ Magnificat ( Coll Reg.) really cries out for a big fat. broad diapason sound in the Gloria climax. Somehow just ‘loud organ sound’ is simply not enough. The organ does sound more at home in Dupré’s versets on Ave Maris Stella here too, the men shine in the alternate verses of plainsong. Schubert’s Stabat Mater, a super but brief setting, is expressively sung and contains some of the most beautifully shaped choral singing on the disc. Tavener’s Hymn for the Dormition, a rather tricky little number requiring ‘harmonic’ singers as opposed to ones that ‘just sing the part’, comes off exceptionally well; almost worthy of the epithet, professional.
A great disc, my only wish being for a bit of male alto sound for colour and spice which is lacking around middle C.
The second disc is concerned with more sombre things, though the format is pictorial starting as it does, with the Last Post and ending with Reveille. For me, this CD contains more expressive singing than the first; maybe that’s the subject material or the line up of singers or whatever. The sound is more vibrant – taking a chance once or twice, even if strain or inaccuracy creeps in. ‘He who dares…’
There are some jewels here too. Stanford’s For lo, I raise up. Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge and Kodály’s Agnus dei from the Missa Brevis. All are sung with youthful verve and dignity. The Kodály is especially impressive, not least for the tortuously high solo soprano parts, carried off here with almost ease. Douglas Guest’s They shall grow not old and the Kontakion of the Dead are almost prerequisite for this genre of programme.
Of the unknown territory I can especially recommend Philip Wilby’s A Peace Prayer: Dove è Amore and John Joubert’s Libera Plebem. With such a varied programme I could have done without hearing yet another performance of Parry’s My Soul, there is a country and I’m not sure about Valiant for Truth of Vaughan Williams for that matter. What I would have loved is a few German pieces. Think long and hard about it and the answer is there somewhere.
Congratulations to the College, the Choir and both the Organist and the Director. for
the results of their endeavours, I, for one, will return to in the future. If you’re tiring of
the Oxbridge traditional sound then give this one a whirl. You’ll enjoy it.
Both CDs are perfectly recorded by Gary Cole and the booklet design for the first is unusually good.
Very rarely can I say that.
PETER BEAVEN