Choral Works – A Babe is Born; Jesus College Canticles; Learsongs; The Heavens Declare the Glory of God; Ave verum corpus; Riddles; A May Magnificat
Hugh Crook & Shanna Hart (organ), Glen Dempsey, Aïda Lahlou & Marie-Noëlle Kendall (piano), David Ellis (bells); The Gentlemen of St John’s; St John’s Voices/Graham Walker
Naxos 8.574162 71.52 mins
It’s for his sacred music that the composer William Mathias is most readily remembered, but that is to risk ignoring a rich output of secular choral works. Two such are given their premiere recordings on this new disc from St John’s Voices – a student choir that sings weekly evensong in the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge – and the conductor Graham Walker.
Everything here is sung with freshness, security and rhythmic energy, and only at the biggest climaxes does one miss an ideal fullness of sound. There’s a persuasive performance of Learsongs (1988), five nonsense-poem settings originally for children’s voices, even if the chapel acoustic and the foregrounded piano-duet accompaniment doesn’t help the text. Riddles, written the year before, is an entertaining and almost dramatic setting of genuine Anglo-Saxon wordplay from the Exeter Book, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, with a band of six soloists trying to outwit the choir. The soloists here are from the main Choir of St John’s which makes for a nice frisson between their easy refinement and the choir’s slightly less burnished tone.
Sacred and secular collide in A May Magnificat, to words by Gerard Manley Hopkins; the choir, split antiphonally and accompanied only by tinkly chime bars, sings this beautifully. It quotes from the 1970 Jesus College Canticles – which we also hear, alongside the Ave verum that Mathias wrote in 1992, the year he died, the perky and enduring carol ‘A Babe is Born’ and his grand Welsh anthem Y nefoedd sydd yn datgan gogoniant Duw.