Treasures of Christ Church (CD review)

Stephen Darlington, the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Avie AV2215.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, has been doing this kind of thing for close to five hundred years, singing beautiful songs. No, not the same choristers, although by the degree of polish they display, you'd think the present singers had been around for ages.

Cardinal Wolsey appointed the first Cathedral Choir director, John Taverner, in 1526, and the choir has been going strong ever since, led by such distinguished directors as Taverner, William Walton, Simon Preston, and its current leader, Stephen Darlington. The makeup of the Cathedral Choir includes twelve men and sixteen boys, the men lay clerks and choral scholars or academical clerks, the boys, students at Christ Church Cathedral School and ranging in age from eight to thirteen, chosen for their musical skills. The present disc lists seventeen choristers, five altos, five tenors, six basses, three instrumentalists on one selection, and organist (director) Clive Driskill-Smith.

The seventeen selections in the program contain works by composers from the sixteenth century to the present, all of the works having strong ties to the cathedral and its library of original manuscripts. I won't try to cover all of the selections, but I will point out a few tracks I found particularly affecting.

Zadok the Priest by George Frideric Handel begins the concert, the piece justly famous and exercising the choir's dynamic range. In contrast to the Handel, the next number is Set me as a seal by twentieth-century English composer William Walton, the music more personal and featuring more individual singing.

Speaking of singing, one cannot overlook the musical accomplishment of the choir. They perform with refinement and distinction throughout, the articulation precise, the harmonic integration letter perfect. The singing is a pleasure to the ear.

The next piece is one of my favorites, Thomas Tallis's Salvator mundi, a hauntingly lovely work sung with conviction. Almost of equal beauty is the Ava Maria of Robert Parsons, a more complex piece of music than its sixteenth-century composition date would indicate.

Benjamin Britten's A Shepherd's Carol is just famous and given a sensitive reading by the choir, with some especially fine solo passages. Likewise, Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock comes across with sweet assurance.

Of all the twentieth-century music on the album, John Rutter's Canticle of the heavenly city perhaps sparkles the most radiantly. Then, Thomas Weelkes's Hosanna to the Son of David brings the festivities to a fittingly triumphant conclusion.

Avie recorded the choir in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, England, in March, 2011. The choir likes to boast that their sound is as much a product of their venue as the singers, and certainly the Merton College setting flatters the presentation. As we might expect, the sonics are wide and spacious, yet they are reasonably intimate, too, a pleasant combination. Although miked at a modest distance, the organ seems a trifle soft and the voices at times a tad bright. Played too loudly, things can sometimes appear a bit fierce, but at a realistic volume level that approximates what one might hear live, the choir sounds clean and vibrant, the acoustic warm and accommodating, and the separation of voices excellent.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa