Signum Records ¦ 14 August 2020 ¦ SIGCD624

On 14 August, The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge and its Director of Music Andrew Nethsingha release the world premiere recording of Michael Finnissy’s Pious Anthems & Voluntaries on Signum, capturing the composition of his 9-part cycle commissioned by the Choir across three academic years.

Commissioning new music has long been part of life at the Choir, with commissions by previous directors George Guest, Christopher Robinson and David Hill. Andrew Nethsingha has taken this tradition one step further, developing the commissioning of new music into one of the cornerstones of the Choir’s ethos. Since becoming Director of Music of the world-class collegiate choir in 2007, Nethsingha has commissioned over 50 pieces. He has been commissioning new choral works throughout his career and brought this practice to St John’s early on in his tenure. Following intermittent Advent commissions from his predecessors, Nethsingha started the Choir’s annual tradition of commissioning new music for their famed Advent services. This tradition led to commissions from leading composers such as Julian Anderson, Jonathan Harvey, Roxanna Panufnik  and Judith Weir.

In recent years, the Choir has also given students at Cambridge a chance to try their hand at composing for the Choir, with recent commissions including Sophie Westbrooke’s Quiet Stream for choir and recorder, performed as part of one of their services in March. Westbrooke is a current undergraduate at Cambridge, and is just one of many students Nethsingha has commissioned music from.

Pairing choral music with unusual instrument combinations has also been a theme of the Choir’s commissioning. This album sees the use of solo flute and violin alongside organ and choir. Their previous commissions have made use of solo instruments such as harp, marimba, timpani, double bass, saxophone and electronics to pair with vocal music, exploring sound worlds rarely touched by other choral ensembles.

Michael Finnissy became part of this rich commissioning practice in 2014, with his piece John the Baptist, which the Choir performed at that year’s Advent service. Nethsingha approached Finnissy once again in 2017 – unusual for the Choir, as it generally doesn’t commission more than one piece from any single composer, to maximise the number and variety they work with. The Choir’s relationship with Finnissy, therefore, is a unique one, allowing the vocal ensemble to develop a deep reciprocal understanding of his music, and him the Choir’s sound.

The cycle of nine works was written over a three-year period, with premieres of the individual pieces taking place in intervals from May 2017 in the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge. In June 2019 the Choir premiered the entire cycle to celebrate 150 years since the Chapel’s consecration.

Finnissy said of the chapel, “It is so special for its windows; your gaze freewheels from one to another – and this cycle of works is like that.

The cycle is closely intertwined with the architecture of St John’s College Chapel. The original chapel was built in 1280, followed by the founding of the College in the 16th century, with new buildings and developments added across the centuries. The nine works of Finnissy’s cycle reflect this architectural layering in musical terms, with some of the pieces based on 16th century Responds and Votive Antiphons, which in turn had been built upon plainsong melodies from the centuries before.

Andrew Nethsingha, the Choir’s Director of Music, said, “This is extremely beautiful music – rich, deep, full of colours, emotions and allusions. The music requires time to marinade in the listener’s mind. It has been fascinating to observe the cycle’s evolution, to develop a deep relationship with one composer and to gain an insight into his compositional processes. We are privileged to have had Michael as the College’s Composer in Residence for the past three years.”

Church music is often associated with traditionalism and ancient ritual, and although the cycle references this rich history, there is, as Nethsingha describes, an innovation in Finnissy’s writing that is not often heard within church walls.

The Choir is famed for championing contemporary music within its heavily varied repertoire, spanning over 500 years of music. This album comes just 4 years since their wildly successful Jonathan Harvey album, which won a BBC Music Magazine Award. Nethsingha was keen to continue challenging both singers and listeners with this commission, saying:

“I feel it is our duty as modern musicians to push the boundaries of choral music, so that it can continue to grow and develop as an art form.”

The disc will be available from 14 August 2020 on Signum Records.