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.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa