CD Review

Best of British Choral Music


© Chris Green, August 2012


If you watched the 2012 Olympic Games from London, then both opening and closing ceremonies did Brit Pop proud with an almost non-stop selection of chart-topping songs. Classical music was conspicuous by its absence and apart from the singing of Jerusalem and the National Anthems, that was it. So, I am making a small dent to remind readers that there are some wonderful releases of British choral music available, and whilst there are some months before Christmas, choirs in many countries may be including music by Vaughan Williams in their programmes. From Naxos comes a beautifully engineered recording of Hodie (This Day). Texts by many famous British authors were sued by the composer to tell; the story of Christ’s coming. Typical of Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to place the work for soloists, choirs and symphony orchestra into a well-established category – for example, mass, choral symphony, or oratorio. In 16 sections, the work contains narrative, choruses and hymns.

Premiered in 1954, four years before the composer’s death, Hodie has never had a central position in choral repertories compared with, say, A Sea Symphony or Dona Nobis Pacem, but it is definitely engrossing and requires a choir to do its homework such as in the chorus And there were in the same country. The Guildford Choral Symphony and St Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir are well able to cope with the demands, helped by a spacious Cadogan Hall, London acoustic and some good balancing with the orchestra, in this case the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton (Naxos 8.570439). As a bonus, there is much earlier composed Fantasia on Christmas Carols: one of the most skilfully contrived selections of church music for that season.

Charles Wood (1866-1926) is all but forgotten now by choirs, but along comes the Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and they have recorded Wood’s St Mark Passion for Naxos ( Naxos 8.570561). This is one of the great contributions that label has made to the music of so many countries: namely, restoring forgotten music to the main-stream repertoire. No one could claim that this setting of the Passion is other than derivative with a strong imprint of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion reflected in the use of chorales. The composer, born in Northern Ireland, made his career at Cambridge where he was, first, an organ scholar before becoming a Fellow. In 1924 he was elected Professor of Music at the University, but that appointment was short lived for two years later, he was dead. Anglican choirs will be familiar with one or more of his many settings of services.

So to a composer who came to wider public attention when one of his church settings was used as the theme music for the BBC adaptation of John le Carre’s thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. His setting of the Nunc dimittis would be heard twice in each episode of the popular and gripping television series and it is one of 18 anthems included in a programme of Geoffrey Burgon’s music recorded by the Choir of Wells Cathedral conducted by Matthew Owens (Hyperion CDA 67567). Burgon’s own experience as a trumpet player is reflected in the frequent use of that instrument as an accompanying instrument for the anthems which generally use an organ. Recorded on location at Wells Cathedral in 2006, the release is one of the most comprehensive available of Burgon’s choral music and most welcome for that reason.