Past Glories Revisited from the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford

This bumper box set from Decca encapsulates a golden age for the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford. Encased in their former jacket designs, the 19 discs showcase recordings made during the 1970s, all originally issued by Argo and L’Oiseau Lyre.  It’s a tribute, of course, to the charisma, imagination and vitality of Simon Preston, who was organist and choirmaster at Christ Church from 1970 to 1981.  He brought to the choir a discipline instilled in him from his experience as a chorister and then organ scholar of King’s College, Cambridge; a quality that inevitably raised the bar to set new standards of excellence for Christ Church.  That he was a perfectionist is evident throughout these recordings, but there’s also his contagious enthusiasm and energy, that results in some of the most remarkable singing from any choir in the UK.  Indeed, fifty years later these performances have rarely been surpassed.  No thin-as-tissue paper top line, but a full-bodied, adrenaline-fuelled tone which would garner acclaimed accounts whether singing a cappella or supported by the still fledgling period instrument ensembles The English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Curiously, Decca’s ordering of the discs follows no clear trajectory and ignores any obvious chronology – disc 9 is devoted to Walton, even though it was the first recording made under Preston’s direction in 1972.  The Byrd 4- and 5-part Masses comprise the first disc, yet there is no Palestrina or Purcell claimed in Presto Music’s blurb about the collection.  What’s clear from this Byrd to Walton traversal is Preston’s spirit of adventure, his visionary range of repertoire that looks well beyond the standard liturgical fare. Few if any cathedral or collegiate choirs would have sung, let alone recorded, Dvořák’s Mass in D, Haydn’s GroBe Orgelmesse or Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum.  These recordings would have been both ground-breaking in studio terms and hugely demanding for the choir, even if the performances were put down out of term time.  Given the unanimity of sound quality, it’s hard to believe these recordings were made in so many different locations in Oxford and London.

Self-evident from them is the sheer passion for the music and an unequivocal commitment to the texts, whether it’s a Penitential Psalm setting by Lassus or Stravinsky’s Mass.  No matter what the challenge might be, the choir sing with tremendous confidence, and the boys seem to throw themselves at the music with a zeal that borders on the fanatical.  One can point to numerous examples where the singing, seemingly powered by an electrical current, would have been virtually unrivalled across the 1970s.  One has only to hear the striking assurance in the Poulenc motets, where each section of the choir is shown to advantage, or the élan and unbridled vigour the choir, especially the boys, summon for Vivaldi’s Gloria. Hardly less vivid is the brio that characterises Israel in Egypt where the choristers don’t just seem to savage the Egyptians but skin them alive.  In the outer sections of Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate the choir sing with an ‘up an’ at ’em’ approach, that brought to my mind Preston as a contemporary Henry V exhorting his troops at Harfleur with ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

It’s not all bellicose singing, clear from the musicianship and wonderful phrasing inhabiting the Byrd Masses, performances that in the early 1970s set a new benchmark for every cathedral and collegiate choir.  Tuning and blend are impeccable in these versions though, curiously, Argo have ignored a rhythmic error from one of the boys in the ‘Sanctus’ from the 5-part Mass.  It’s unclear to me which Byrd editions the choir sang from during that decade, but one former chorister drew attention to the Lassus pieces – commenting ‘it was pioneering work into early music interpretation, singing off C clef copies, original note values, and final chords being held for the full value of the ‘long’.  No difficulties can be detected with those C clef scores, and Christ Church brings its customary polish and an impressive range of expression to the double choir Missa ‘Bell’ Amfitrit’ Altera’.

Elsewhere, one will hear sweet-toned ‘Alleluias’ and gutsy rhythmic exchanges in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and a fearless encounter with the melodic angularities of his Canticum Sacrum.  No less challenging are the complexities of Walton’s The Twelve – not something your average cathedral or college choir will have had in their repertoire.  Nor would you find many of the Haydn masses Preston introduces, where the choir seem to have all the heft of a small choral society.  Likewise, there’s a robust, if at times roughhewn account of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, complete with the Christmas interpolations.

If there’s one disc that stands out head and shoulders above the rest, it’s the Romantic Choral Classics with Colin Walsh at the organ.  I remember listening to my vinyl copy repeatedly some thirty years ago, thinking then it’s as close to perfection as you could ask for.  It commands attention from the off with that declamatory opening that launches Elgar’s Give unto the Lord.  This is singing of the highest calibre; detailed and consistently involving.  The character of the Rachmaninov and Kalinnikov pieces is well-caught, and superlatives are inadequate to describe the boys in Fauré’s Ave verum.  One might quibble with the sforzando on ‘Mors’ in Bruckner’s Ave Maria, but power and delicacy are superbly integrated. And what a joy to hear the altos letting rip at the top of the stave in Christus factus est (erroneously listed as Locus iste).  Flawless singing inhabits the entire disc which, like the Stravinsky/Poulenc collection, appears on CD for the first time.

There’s a wonderful assemblage of soloists: Emma Kirby reminding us of her prime in Vivaldi’s Nulla in mundo pax sincera and the late James Bowman’s creamy tone and slightly distorted vowels in ‘Eternal source of Light’ from Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.  Just as ear-catching are the tenors Paul Elliot, Martyn Hill and Roger Covey-Crump, each distinctive in their contributions, as is the clarion tone of countertenor Charles Brett.  Yet it’s the bass-baritone David Thomas who takes the palm with singing of remarkable resonance in Haydn’s seldom performed and occasionally long-winded Missa Sancte Caeciliae.

If Preston was the Cathedral’s ‘new broom’, his sweeping prompted John Steane in Gramophone to declare Christ Church had ‘one of the best choirs in the country’.  Few would argue with that.  These recordings enjoy excellent sound (notwithstanding an overcooked Dvořák) and include within the 32-page booklet an essay from former chorister Ronald Corp.  Texts and original sleeve notes are inevitably absent.  In short, no serious discophile should be without this significant collection.  Nothing less than a standing ovation is good enough for this remarkable trip down memory lane.

David Truslove

Choir of Christ Church, Oxford with Simon Preston (musical director)

CD 1 Byrd – Mass for 4 voices, Mass for 5 voices

CD 2 & 3 Lassus – Alma Redemptoris Mater, Missa ‘Bell’ Amfitrit’ Altera’, Salve Regina, Omnes de Saba venient, Penitential Psalms V & VII, Tui sunt coeli

CD 4 & 5 Handel – Israel in Egypt (Gale, Watson, Bowman, Partridge, McDonnell, Watt, English Chamber Orchestra)

CD 6 Dvořák – Mass in D major (Ritchie, Giles, Byers, Morton, Cleobury (organ))

CD 7 Stravinsky – Canticum Sacrum, Symphony of Psalms (Morton, Creed, Philip Jones Ensemble)

CD 8 Stravinsky – Mass; Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël (London Sinfonietta)

CD 9 Walton – Jubilate Deo, Set Me as a Seal upon Thine Heart, Where Does the Uttered Music Go?, Missa Brevis, The Twelve, A Litany, All This Time, Make We Joy Now in This Fest, What Cheer? (Giles, Roy, Hayward, Jones, Morton, Rowlinson, Darlington (organ))

CD 10 Elgar – Give unto the Lord; Rachmaninov – Hymn of the Cherubim; Bruckner – Ave Maria, Christus factus est, Virga Jesse; Verdi – Pater Noster, Ave Maria; Fauré – Ave verum; Kalinnikov – I Will Love Thee; Brahms – Geistliches Lied (Walsh (organ))

CD 11 J.S. Bach – Magnificat in E flat BWV 243a, Der Gerechte kömmt um, BWV 1149 (Kirkby, Nelson, Watkinson, Elliott, Thomas, Academy of Ancient Music)

CD 12 Handel – Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (Nelson, Minty, Bowman, Thomas), Anthem for the Foundling Hospital (Nelson, Kirkby, Bowman, Hill, The Academy of Ancient Music)

CD 13 Handel – ‘Utrecht’ Te Deum (Nelson, Kirkby, Brett, Covey-Crump, Elliott, Thomas), Jubilate (Brett, Covey-Crump, Thomas, The Academy of Ancient Music)

CD 14 & 15 Handel – Messiah (Nelson, Kirkby, Watkinson Elliott, Thomas, The Academy of Ancient Music, Hogwood (conductor))

CD 16 Vivaldi – Gloria RV589, Nulla in mundo pax sincera RV630 (Nelson, Kirkby, Watkinson, The Academy of Ancient Music)

CD 17 Haydn – Missa Sancta Caeciliae Hob XXII:5 (Nelson, Cable, Hill, Thomas), Missa rorate coeli desuper Hob. XXII:3 (The Academy of Ancient Music)

CD 18 Haydn – Missa in honorem Beatissime Virginis Mariae, Hob XXII:4 (Nelson, Watkinson, Hill, Thomas, The Academy of Ancient Music, Hogwood (organ))

CD 19 Haydn – Missa Sancti ‘Nicolai’ Hob. XXII.6 (Nelson, Minty, Covey-Crump, Thomas), Missa brevis in F Hob. XXII.1 ‘Jugendmesse’ (Nelson, Kirby, The Academy of Ancient Music)