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"Ash Wednesday"

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge; James Anderson-Besant, organ
Dir: Andrew Nethsingha

rec: March 6, 2019 (live), Cambridge, chapel of St John's College
Signum Classics - SIGCD605 ( 2020) (53'22")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
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[in order of appearance] William BYRD (c1539-1623): [The Preces]; Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652): Miserere mei, Deus; Thomas WEELKES (c1576-1623): The Short Service; William BYRD: [The Responses]; Ne irascaris, Domine; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Prelude in e minor (BWV 548.1)

In many churches and chapels across the United Kingdom, every day an Evensong takes place. Since a long time, BBC Radio Three covers one of the Evensongs on Wednesday. In 1972 it started to broadcast the Evensong on Ash Wednesday from St John's College, Cambridge, and this has become a tradition which is still alive, although in recent years the coverage was biennial. The present disc is a recording of the latest performance covered by the BBC, on 6 March 2019.

Ash Wednesday is a crucial day in the ecclesiastical year of the Christian church. It is the start of Lent, the period of forty days preceding Easter, in which the faithful prepare to commemorate the Passion of Christ and his death, leading to his resurrection which is celebrated on Easter. Lent culminates in Holy Week, the last week before Easter, when the story of Christ's Passion is performed, and - during the last three days, the so-called Triduum Sacrum - the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Tenebrae Responsories are sung.

During Lent, the seven penitential psalms are sung. The best-known of them is Psalm 51 (50 in the Vulgate), which has been set numerous times in the course of history. By far the most famous setting is that by Gregorio Allegri, which is scored for nine voices. Traditionally, it is his setting that is part of the Ash Wednesday Evensong in St John's College Cambridge. Therefore it is the main work on the present disc. Listening to and assessing this disc, it is important to keep in mind that its purpose is not so much to present music for Lent in a 'historically correct' performance, but rather to make the listener participate in a liturgical event. As the choir's director, Andrew Nethsingha, states in his notes on Allegri's Miserere: "This is conducive to meditation, to reflexion, to worship - for believers it cleanses the soul, and that is at the heart of the Lenten journey." That is particularly relevant here, as the form in which this piece is generally performed these days is the result of a process of arrangement and adaptation to the taste of the time. It is unlikely that Allegri would have recognized the Miserere as it is performed here as a work of his own. But Nethsingha chose to stick to this version, "despite its lack of strict authenticity", because "[the] aim is to conjure up a hypnotic, repetitive, healing atmosphere, in which waves of sound wash over the listener without surprises". That is certainly the way this work in this version works for many listeners. They are particularly keen to hear the top Cs, which reflect an aesthetic ideal which was completely alien to the ideals of the 17th century. One can only admire the way Alfred Harrison hits the top notes with astonishing ease. All said and done, a performance of this piece, even in this form, by an all-male choir is definitely more 'authentic' than such performances by a mixed vocal ensemble.

The purpose of this disc, as mentioned above, should also be kept in mind with regard to the remaining items in the programme. That goes, for instance, for Thomas Weelkes's Short Service, which includes the two fixed parts of any Evensong, the Magnificat (My soul doth magnificy the Lord) and the Nunc dimittis (Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace). From 1601 until his death, Weelkes acted as organist and master of the choristers at Chichester Cathedral. The cathedral's choir is thought to have been rather small in size, but in this recording we hear the Short Service as it may have been adapted for use in larger churches. James Anderson-Besant, in his liner-notes, mentions the example of an Alleluia for Chichester, which was changed at Durham "so that the music alternated between the 'Decani' and 'Cantoris' sides of the choir, creating a spatial effect. This is how the St John's Choir sing Weelkes's Short Service today, with movement from side to side marked in by the editor."

Another case is William Byrd's motet Ne irascaris, Domine. At the time he wrote his music, public Catholic worship was forbidden. This means that his music for the Catholic liturgy was intended for performance during secret masses and domestic worship. From that angle a performance with a choir of the size of that of St John's College is certainly not plausible. Again, this is not decisive in a liturgical event like this Evensong. However, Nethsingha indicates that he is aware of these historical circumstances. "For Byrd's Ne irascaris, Domine I kept in mind the thought of it being sung secretly behind closed doors, at a time when Catholics were being persecuted; this is deeply personal, intimate music. The Israelites' sorrow at their exile from Jerusalem mirrored the recusant Byrd's desolation at the lack of Catholicism in England. Whilst singing the motet I asked the Choristers to imagine they were in Central Park just after 9/11, mourning the loss of friends and colleagues who had died; I am fortunate to have Choristers with such mature artistry and musical empathy."

Evensongs always close with an organ 'voluntary'; here it is concluded with the Prelude in e minor (BWV 548,1) by Johann Sebastian Bach. As nearly all churches and chapels in England, the chapel of St John's College has an organ of symphonic character, as they were built in the 19th century. It is a relatively new instrument completed in 1994, but "[the] inspiration behind the tonal conception of the instrument was the English organ of the mid-nineteenth century" (Mander Organs). Obviously, one can't expect anything like an 'authentic' interpretation of a baroque organ work on such an instrument. Anderson-Besant does give it his all to make it sound at least acceptable.

It seems that this disc is aimed at the British market. The booklet does not include any information about the nature of an Evensong, which many music lovers from outside the UK may be not familiar with. A more serious shortcoming is that the liturgical texts - the Preces and Responses - are not printed. These are taken from the Book of Common Prayer, but it is unlikely that anyone outside the UK will have access to this collection of liturgical texts (many in the UK may not have it at hand either, for that matter).

Those who confine themselves to 'historically informed' performances, should stay away from this disc. But for those who are interested in current liturgical practices and in the way early music can play a part in them, this is a disc which is well worth including in one's collection. As one may expect from this choir, the singing is superb, and within the concept which is the basis of this recording, Nethsingha has taken some sensitive decisions to do justice to the nature of the repertoire.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

Relevant links:

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge


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