Signum Records ¦ 27 November 2020 ¦ SIGCD661

On 27th November, The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge and their Director Andrew Nethsingha are releasing the second volume of their Advent Live series. Featuring live recordings of the Choir from the past few years, including several of its own commissions, this album aims to celebrate the joys of live music-making, in a year where that has been difficult to come by.

The music from this album comes almost entirely from the Choir’s 2018 and 2019 Advent Services, which have been broadcast by the BBC annually since 1981. The one exception is John McCabe’s The last and greatest Herald, taken from 2008, the year in which the Choir began its annual series of Advent commissions, made possible by an anonymous benefactor.

Commissioning has long been at the heart of the Choir’s ethos, and this album greatly reflects its commitment to keeping the contemporary choral tradition alive. Though not organised thematically, there are three consecutive St John’s commissions included in this collection relating to John the Baptist. Cecilia McDowall depicts the rippling water of baptism, Gabriel Jackson makes use of the saxophone to portray a voice crying in the wilderness, and finally John McCabe’s 2008 commission utilises the inimitable sound of the St John’s Trompeta Real organ stop.

Instrumental collaboration is rife on this album, with Judith Bingham’s commission Hark, the glad sound employing Spanish saxophonist Ignacio Mañá Mesas, a current third year student at the College. Welsh harpist Anne Denholm (of The Hermes Experiment) plays for Britten’s Deo Gracias, having accompanied the Choir many times since graduating as a student from Cambridge herself. Swedish lutenist Jakob Lindberg, famed for being the first person ever to record the complete solo lute music of John Dowland, joins the Choir for the first time on Telemann’s Ach so laß von mir dich finden.

As well as including various seasonal favourites, the disc seeks to introduce listeners to attractive less-well-known repertoire, such as works by Hugo Distler, Elizabeth Maconchy and Hugo Wolf.

The album’s deliberate choice to include congregational hymns hopes to remind listeners of the joy of communal hymn singing, in a time when this is not available to many. The album finishes in a rousing chorus of Lo! he comes with clouds descending, featuring Christopher Robinson’s descant for the service’s climax.

Following on from volume one’s apple, the choice of cover image alludes once again to the forbidden fruit. As Nethsingha explains in the album’s detailed accompanying notes, though the fruit is often depicted as an apple in Western Europe, a pomegranate is considered more likely in other traditions.

The first volume of Advent Live, released in November 2018, was met with critical acclaim, remaining in the classical music charts for four weeks over the Advent and Christmas period. The Observer praised the ‘vast repertoire’ and the ‘edge and vibrancy’ of the live recordings, while BBC Music Magazine hailed the ‘superbly programmed collection’, and Gramophone referenced ‘Andrew Nethsingha’s inspired direction’ in retaining the Choir’s‘renowned clarity, flamboyance and readiness to take risks.’

Andrew Nethsingha, Director of The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, said:
“I am a great believer in the frisson of live performance, and I hope listeners can imagine themselves as being part of the large congregation, packed in close to the Choir. Whilst I write these words during the Coronavirus pandemic, such experiences are only possible in the imagination; there is a poignant added dimension to the Advent themes of hope and longing.”

The disc will be available from 27 November 2020 on Signum Records.