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Music review: Pious Anthems and Voluntaries

21 August 2020

Michael Finnissy and Andrew Nethsingha talk to Susan Gray about a Cambridge choral collaboration

© James Proctor

Andrew Nethsingha directing performers on recording day

Andrew Nethsingha directing performers on recording day

EVENSONG has been woven through Andrew Nethsingha’s life since he sang at Exeter Cathedral under the direction of his father, Lucian. The director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge, since 2007, Andrew says: “In some ways, there’s a wonderful continuity: the shape of evensong is still the same, the procession, the psalms; and I love that monastic regularity. One is part of a daily tradition of singing the daily Office that has been going back many centuries.”

Having released its first commercial album in 1959, the Choir of St John’s is now adding to that tradition with an opera-length cycle of music by the composer Michael Finnissy.

© Ben BrittonMichael Finnissy

With its stable membership of choristers boarding at St John’s College School, and university choral scholars, the Gentlemen, Nethsingha says that a college choir’s infrastructure puts it in pole position to tackle demanding projects: “College choirs have longer rehearsal times: we have an hour before each service, whereas, in my previous job at Gloucester, I had 20 minutes. And we have exactly the same singers every day for all 200 services of the year.”

Discovering all the musical resources that St John’s had to offer began for Finnissy with a lunch in Cambridge in winter 2015-16. The choir had already sung an Advent carol by him which won a British Composer Award, an Ivor. “First thing I said was ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’ because I don’t have any particular reputation for writing church music.”

Having accompanied ballet classes as a teenager, the composer is closely associated with contemporary dance, working with the choreographers Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, and also the new-music singers Josephine Nendick and Jane Manning. Reassured that somebody from the non-choral tradition was exactly what Nethsingha was looking for — “They are sometimes more original because they are not so steeped in Stanford and Parry as the rest of us” — Finnissy became composer-in-residence.

Commissioned to celebrate the college chapel’s 150th anniversary, Finnissy’s music draws on the college’s sequence of architectural styles, beginning with a 12th-century infirmary, whose outline can still be seen in First Court, built 1511-20, and buildings added in the 18th century. Two anthems based on Tudor music of Tallis and Taverner were his first pieces of work. The choir’s newer tradition of performing a Bach cantata every term inspired the second piece of music, based on Cantata 96, Herr Christ Der einge Gottessohn. “All the time in this cycle of pieces, there are references to music that would have already been performed by the choir. I’m holding hands with the past. I’m building bridges with the past,” Finnissy says.

He also wanted to capitalise on the college’s enjoying both an organ scholar and apprentice. “How often does this happen to a composer? Once in a lifetime; so I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.” The last piece draws on Tippett, whose Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings are considered the foremost commission for St John’s in the 20th century; and Finnissy also knew Tippett. The track Plebs Angelica employs a double choir, and the college’s chamber and large organs. “No two organs are exactly the same in sound colour; so they are more different than the two choirs.”

The working method of the composer and music director was for compositions to be sent to St John’s to be worked up by the choir. Then Finnissy would work with them in college, arriving at 2 p.m. to attend rehearsal, evensong, and another rehearsal, before going home to Norfolk the next day. Feedback from all the singers was welcomed: “The kids did come up and tell me how much they enjoyed it. They loved singing parallel seconds and dissonances. With the older members, it was easier to communicate. It was splendid to have that freedom to talk to not only the commissioner, but the people who are performing. My next in line, after I’ve put the dots down on the page, is the performer, and not to be able to talk to them is just miffing.”

© James BeddoeAndrew Nethsingha

The road from initial commission to recording “Pious Anthems and Voluntaries” took three and a half years. But the recording session in the chapel in July last year was completed in just four days. “It was extremely well prepared before then. We premièred the first choral piece in May 2017. We would have performed that piece six times before the recording actually happened,” Nethsingha says.

An experience commissioning at Wells Cathedral back in the 1990s underscored the virtue of being prepared. “I commissioned a piece for a big occasion. I asked for it to be in four parts and three minutes long, and simple. The piece arrived. and it was eight minutes long, in eight parts. and 22 pages long.” In the school-service trial run the night before, it collapsed three times. “The whole thing was a complete disaster.”

Now, in contrast, the music has to be in the singers’ bodies before big performances or pressing record. “I like to be so well prepared that people feel at ease: nobody has to worry whether they’re going to get the next note right. That stage of the process was way back in the past: that enables you to sing with more freedom.”

When Nethsingha’s predecessor, Christopher Robinson, released ten CDs of the Choir of St John’s singing English composers at the turn of the millennium, the series sold 250,000 copies. Those days are gone. Once composer, sound-engineer, and producer fees are factored in, “recordings are not a money-making venture.” But recordings raise a choir’s profile, and inspire other directors of music to extend their repertoire. And they form part of the choir’s legacy.

Choral music is also evangelising, for some their first taste of classical music, the gateway to exploring more — and, for many, a pathway to a deeper understanding of faith. Nethsingha says of evensong’s emotional power: “Whatever emotions people are feeling, particularly in the Psalms, you can take comfort that people have been feeling these extreme emotions for thousands of years. The combination of music with the Psalm reading makes it all the more powerful.”

Finnissy adds that choral music elevates the text that is sung. It elevates in a spiritual sense, the same way as the host is elevated, and gives it a certain significance that it doesn’t have in ordinary speech. “I prefer church to be special,” he concludes.

“Pious Anthems and Voluntaries” is available from Signum Records. signumrecords.com

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