My soul doth magnify the Lord


English Canticle Settings by British Composers

14th November 2009

Taunton School Chapel

INTRIGUING NOVELTIES - Review by Andrew Carter

The motto of Collegium Singers (formerly Taunton Camerata) is ‘exploring beautiful music’. The Singers’ inaugural concert in Taunton School Chapel on 14 November, conducted by Peter Leech and featuring the organist and composer David Bednall, did just that.

Entitled ‘My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord’, the concert opened a window into church music from the 19th century to the present day, and showed how the (predominantly Anglican) liturgy, and sacred texts, still inspire composers to produce works which deserve to be judged and appreciated by the same high standards that apply to any form of serious music. This point was emphasised in an enlightening pre-concert discussion between Peter Leech and David Bednall; the latter insisted that he is not a ‘church composer’, but, like many others, a composer who sometimes writes music intended to enhance the liturgy and worship of the Church. (Such introductory talks or discussions, which provide explanatory background to perhaps unfamiliar repertoire, are a welcome feature which deserve to be continued).

Central to the programme were three contrasting settings of the Evensong canticles, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Herbert Howells’ St Paul’s Service, a masterpiece written for the vast spaces and 12-second echo of that cathedral, enabled the choir to sustain long melodic lines and revel in lush post-Romantic harmony (no mean achievement in the somewhat less opulent acoustic of a school chapel). Ian Higginson’s setting was immediately attractive and accessible, with modal tunes and perky syncopation. David Bednall’s own Gloucester Service revealed a distinctive musical personality, rooted in tradition but with many original rhythmic and harmonic features; this stretched the choir up to – and occasionally beyond! – the limit. The composer, at the organ, provided agile and sensitive accompaniment; he also played with great panache one of his works for solo organ, ‘Magna voce cano et magno cum jubilo’, in which the contemporary French organ style seems to collide with jazz piano – with entirely satisfying results.

The rest of the programme consisted of short pieces in varied styles which illustrated that ‘church’ music is as capable as any other sort of music of evoking mood, atmosphere and feeling: among others, mellifluous Victorian (Hubert Parry) and its 20th-century descendant (William McKie); tributes to medieval carols (Timothy Rogers) and to Bruckner (Nicholas Wilton); the bittersweet ‘Englishness’ of Gerald Finzi. Of particular interest was the technically demanding but highly effective ‘Set Me As A Seal’ by conductor Peter Leech; the choir delivered the close harmonic clusters with warmth and confidence, and Catherine Bass was the sweet-toned soloist.

Collegium Singers are a technically accomplished and musically sensitive ensemble which has inherited a reputation for unusual, challenging and attractive programmes, expertly performed. Their next concert, of ‘Christmas Music from German Lands’, on 18 December in St John’s Wellington, promises to be a festive celebration with a difference.