Andrew Nethsingha

As the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge releases a disc of choral works by Howells, choirmaster Andrew Nethsingha talks to bbcmusicmagazine.com

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Your disc includes Howells’s A Grace for 10 Downing Street. Very topical! But how did you choose the programme in general?

I tried to choose a mixture of different periods. The earliest are things like A Spotless Rose (1919) and then we go right the way through to works from the 1970s. Some of the music, such as Like as the Hart, is very well known, but then there are some rarities too – By the Waters of Babylon is a marvellous piece from his earlier period while the Grace is, I think, a first recording. It’s a little gem.

So you didn’t include the Grace knowing that there was a General Election round the corner, then…

That wasn’t in my mind, no! But when my father was organist at Exeter Cathedral, he would include anthems by RS Thatcher on election day, or the Blair in B minor canticles…

Your disc also contains works that have a direct link to St John’s College, doesn’t it?

Yes. Howells’s A Sequence for St Michael was written for the college’s 450th anniversary. It’s notable, and quite flattering, how he honoured St John’s by composing such an unusually personal piece – while it ostensibly refers to St Michael, the anguished cries at the very beginning are clearly for his son Michael, who had died over 25 years earlier. The bereavement was still very raw and vivid.

And Howells wrote a lot of his music with the acoustic of specific buildings in mind…

My previous post was at Gloucester Cathedral, and for me it was always very interesting to see just how perfectly his Gloucester Service (also on the disc) suits that building. It’s inspired not only by the acoustics of the cathedral, but also by the architecture – the feeling of huge space and awe that you feel there is exactly what you get at the words ‘As it was in the beginning’ in the Gloria. However, it works well here at St John's too, and the music suits the red-blooded style of the choir.

So, when is the best time to hear St John’s College choir sing? In an empty but highly resonant chapel during the weekday evensong, or when the building is full on a big occasion?

It’s true of a lot of buildings that the sound is best when there’s hardly anyone there at all. However, I quite like it when the building is full – even though there is less resonance, it’s compensated for by the adrenalin in the air, which really gets the best out of the singers.

St John’s Magnificat (Chandos CHAN 10587) is on sale now.

Interview by Jeremy Pound

Audio clip: Howells: A Grace for 10 Downing Street