Pious Anthems & Voluntaries
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Glen Dempsey & James Anderson-Besant (organ), Sarah O’Flynn (flute), Cecily Ward (violin)
Recorded 14-18 July 2019 at St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: December 2020
CD No: SIGNUM CD624 (2 CDs)
Duration: 84 minutes
Given his reputation as a fearless radical, uncompromising in his pursuit of rethinking the language and structure of music, one does not readily associate Michael Finnissy (born 1946) with music written for the church. This Signum release brings together the fruits of a three-year residency at St John’s College, Cambridge and celebrates the chapel’s 150th-anniversary with a sequence of devotional pieces that reimagine four specific works within the choir’s repertoire from Taverner to Tippett (Tallis and J.S. Bach too), each coupled with an organ/instrumental commentary. Far from being a traversal across the centuries, this is more a collection of works, loosely forming a meditation on Christ’s life, its conversation with the past prompted by Andrew Nethsingha and Finnissy’s own sense of intellectual curiosity.
Proceedings open with an unaccompanied setting of Dum transisset Sabbatum structurally based on Taverner’s 16th-century motet for Easter Sunday. Finnissy’s sinuous counterpoint unfolds with an austere beauty in which voices variously dance and float, silences an integral part of the composer’s concept. The ensuing contemplative organ solo, named a ‘Double’, revisits the anthem with considerable freedom, reflecting its outlines from different angles, dreamlike and numinous.
The mood continues in the Tallis-inspired Videte Miraculum, an expansive and ethereal canvas juxtaposing words drawn from The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and lines by John Donne. Its light-filled textures and soaring contours (amply conveying a sense of wonder) is enriched by passages for solo voices impressively sung. A second ‘Double’ for organ reshapes the miracle of Mary’s conception with music of trancelike luminosity.
Bach’s cantata Herr Christ Der einge Gottessohn(BWV96) provides the stimulus for Finnissy’s shape-shifting reimagining, albeit now inhabiting a closer relationship to its original source, with flute and violin joining the organ for their own commentary. Chorale-based outer sections provide familiar reference points, while the angular vocal lines of two sparely accompanied recitatives (sung with great assurance by treble and tenor soloists) suggest Bach more remotely. Most recognisably Bachian is the florid alto aria where Hugh Cutting’s liquid tones are taken up by Sarah O’Flynn’s eloquent flute. A little more projection from Cecily Ward’s violin and less vibrato from bass James Adams would have rendered their cantabile lines for ‘Bald zur Rechten’ more convincingly, yet in no way invalidates Finnissy’s fascinating deconstruction. His cantata is framed by two instrumental commentaries: the first, based on Bach’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, is quirkily good-humoured with alternating playful and more complex references to the Epiphany chorale melody, while the second revisits Bach’s unfinished organ fugue belonging to BWV562 and forms an unlikely cross-fertilisation between Baroque counterpoint and echoes of Pierre Boulez – pure Finnissy.
This twentieth-century link takes us neatly to Tippett, an important influence on Finnissy whose own Plebs angelica he describes as “being like a chant with canons”. Largely homophonic, it’s scored for double choir; one singing in Latin, the other duplicating the text in English. To its heavenly cavalcade and tortuous lines, the choir responds with singing of the utmost assurance, harmonic challenges seemingly vanquished. I just wish my emotional response to the piece could be warmer. Likewise, the concluding organ commentary on Plebs angelica with quasi-improvisatory reminiscences of earlier material embedded in its antiphonal writing, left me unmoved, though I marvelled at the composer’s intellectual rigour.Altogether, these are throughly absorbing pieces that may generate more admiration than affection, but Nethsingha’s choristers and supporting players do Finnissy’s music proud. The lavishly produced booklet includes colour images and comprehensive notes and translations.