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25 Aug 2006
MENDELSSOHN: Sacred Choral Music
The English “Oxbridge” choral tradition tends to be a cohesive one, most often with choirs of men and boys receiving similar training, singing a largely shared repertory in similar venues and in similar contexts.
Amid the unified tradition, however, certain choirs have claimed a sound more individualized than the traditional ideal, with St. John’s, Cambridge being one of the classic instances. Under the leadership of George Guest from 1951 to 1968, the choir became well known for its more continental timbre and directness of sound, a parallel development to the style in favor at London’s Westminster Cathedral under George Malcolm.
Guests’s organ scholars have included both Stephen Cleobury and David Hill, two of the leading figures in modern English church music. Interestingly, both Cleobury and Hill were at one time Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral, where the continental style had long found a warm reception. Cleobury went from Westminster to King’s College, Cambridge, the standard bearer of what we might call the “traditional” sound; Hill, after fifteen years at Winchester Cathedral, returned to St. John’s in 2003. Interestingly, as this present recording under Hill’s direction shows, the sound at St. John’s has changed, with a more modulated treble in evidence and also a more pure blend. Thus, the recording is an opportunity to be reminded that no matter how rich the tradition in a given place, change, to a degree, is a part of keeping the tradition alive.
Mendelssohn’s choral music draws on diverse musical influences. J. S. Bach seems, naturally enough, often peering over Mendelssohn’s shoulder, as in the contrapuntal chorale fantasia form of “Aus Tiefer Not,” or the second half of the “Ave Maria,” whose running-note bass line under slower-moving choral writing reminds of the Credo from the B-minor Mass. In other instances, it is the chorale-rich Reform tradition itself that seems to be a guiding force, as in “Mitten wir im Leben sind,” an earnest and powerful work that seems to partake of Reformation zeal. Still in other pieces, however, Mendelssohn draws on early nineteenth-century melodic propensities, and writes beautiful chorale Lieder. One of the best instances of this on the recording is surely “Verleih’ uns Frieden,” and the choir’s performance unfolds with a remarkable naturalness and sense of line. This diversity is discernible in the program, but, that said, there is also a degree of sameness in many of the pieces, where eight-voice, rich textures in chordal style predominate.
The most familiar work on the recording is surely “Hör mein Bitten” (commonly “Hear My Prayer”). It may be a hearty perennial, but how welcome is this absolutely splendid performance. The treble soloist, Quintin Beer, who must carry much of the piece on his shoulders, is a joy. He sings with a big sound, well handled, with sensitive phrasing and an unforced high range. His sense of line and his ability to sustain—sustainability of line is one of the signature virtues of the recording—seem quite mature, and the confidence he brings is surely well deserved. “Hear my Prayer” was featured on the first of the sixty recordings that George Guest made on the Argo label. As this present recording is the first that St. John’s has made for Hyperion, we might excitedly await the next fifty-nine!