MENDELSSOHN: Sacred Choral Music

Amid the unified tradition, however, certain choirs have claimed a sound more individualized than the traditional ideal, with St. Johnís, Cambridge being one of the classic instances. Under the leadership of George Guest from 1951 to 1968, the choir became well known for its more continental timbre and directness of sound, a parallel development to the style in favor at Londonís Westminster Cathedral under George Malcolm.
Guestsís organ scholars have included both Stephen Cleobury and David Hill, two of the leading figures in modern English church music. Interestingly, both Cleobury and Hill were at one time Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral, where the continental style had long found a warm reception. Cleobury went from Westminster to Kingís College, Cambridge, the standard bearer of what we might call the ìtraditionalî sound; Hill, after fifteen years at Winchester Cathedral, returned to St. Johnís in 2003. Interestingly, as this present recording under Hillís direction shows, the sound at St. Johnís has changed, with a more modulated treble in evidence and also a more pure blend. Thus, the recording is an opportunity to be reminded that no matter how rich the tradition in a given place, change, to a degree, is a part of keeping the tradition alive.
Mendelssohnís choral music draws on diverse musical influences. J. S. Bach seems, naturally enough, often peering over Mendelssohnís shoulder, as in the contrapuntal chorale fantasia form of ìAus Tiefer Not,î or the second half of the ìAve Maria,î whose running-note bass line under slower-moving choral writing reminds of the Credo from the B-minor Mass. In other instances, it is the chorale-rich Reform tradition itself that seems to be a guiding force, as in ìMitten wir im Leben sind,î an earnest and powerful work that seems to partake of Reformation zeal. Still in other pieces, however, Mendelssohn draws on early nineteenth-century melodic propensities, and writes beautiful chorale Lieder. One of the best instances of this on the recording is surely ìVerleihí uns Frieden,î and the choirís performance unfolds with a remarkable naturalness and sense of line. This diversity is discernible in the program, but, that said, there is also a degree of sameness in many of the pieces, where eight-voice, rich textures in chordal style predominate.
The most familiar work on the recording is surely ìHˆr mein Bittenî (commonly ìHear My Prayerî). It may be a hearty perennial, but how welcome is this absolutely splendid performance. The treble soloist, Quintin Beer, who must carry much of the piece on his shoulders, is a joy. He sings with a big sound, well handled, with sensitive phrasing and an unforced high range. His sense of line and his ability to sustainósustainability of line is one of the signature virtues of the recordingóseem quite mature, and the confidence he brings is surely well deserved. ìHear my Prayerî was featured on the first of the sixty recordings that George Guest made on the Argo label. As this present recording is the first that St. Johnís has made for Hyperion, we might excitedly await the next fifty-nine!
Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Mendelssohn. Sacred Choral Music
product_title=Felix Mendelssohn: Sacred Choral Music
product_by=The Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge, David Hill, Director
product_id=Hyperion CDA67558 [CD]