Andrew Palmer, Group Editor

Classical Music: A Year At Newcastle Cathedral

A Year at Newcastle

Bairstow Sing ye to the Lord; Drakett The Wells Service; Elgar Benedictus; Finzi Lo, the full, final sacrifice, op.26; Gray Grace Anthems; Howells Collegium Regale Te Deum; Ponniah Litany to the Holy Spirit; Thomsett Ubi caritas; Vaughan Williams Kyrie Mass in G minor; Psalm 23 'The Bird's Song from The Pilgrim's Progress; Willan Rise up, my love.

The Choir of Newcastle Cathedral
Director of Music Ian Roberts
Organist Kris Thomsett

Regent Records: REGCD582

The architecture of Newcastle Cathedral may not be the most splendid of the UK’s ecclesiastical gems, except perhaps for its steeple, but the singing of its choir most definitely is.

The programme that Ian Roberts has cleverly constructed in his first recording as director of music lets his choir resplendently create space and time to fill every crevice.

In assembling his repertoire, Roberts has neatly chosen compositions that predominantly span the 20th century, the majority of which are a cappella. A smart move! His fine choir is in good form, well-balanced, and has a lovely tone.

William Drakett’s Evening Canticles from ‘The Wells Service’ were written for Matthew Owens and the Lay Clerks and Choral Scholars of Wells Cathedral Choir. Drakett takes plainsong tones as his starting point; they are beautiful and haunting, and the lower voices create the luminous and resonant qualities of the piece superbly.

Alan Gray’s Three Grace Anthems were written during his time as organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. They have recently been rediscovered and newly edited by Matthew McCullough, a member of the choir, and show Gray’s skill for a cappella choral writing. Roberts shapes each of his choir’s contributions with light, shade, and rhythmic accuracy.

Assistant organist, Kris Thomsett, also demonstrates his compositional skill in an attractive and elegant, French-style Ubi caritas; it matches that of Duruflé's for expressive exquisiteness. Thomsett is also a fine accompanist, effectively cushioning the choir with a delightful mixture of stops and swell pedal control to suitably excite with crescendos to complement the choir’s contribution. The colour he manages is equal to that contained in the large collection of the cathedral's Victorian glass.

The introduction to Finzi’s magnificent Lo, the full final sacrifice, is wonderfully expressive and controlled. Thomsett uses his resource with a sensitive understanding of how the instrument works within the cathedral space. Overall, this substantial work is given an excellent performance. The choir’s poised and controlled singing is impressive, and, as one waits in anticipation for what is probably one of the finest sung ‘Amens’ in Anglican choral music, it does not disappoint when, 15 minutes later, it appears in the ether as the choir fills the space perfectly before returning to a diminuendo that obliges contemplation.

With the unfortunate demise of Matins, a service that, like Choral Evensong, is a perfect antidote for those looking for mindfulness, we have lost the fine examples of composers setting the words of the Te deum.

For me, Howells’ Collegium regale offering has the power to move. It’s a marvellous combination of voice and organ from a composer who really understood the architecture of cathedrals and parish churches for which he wrote, with the exception, in my opinion, of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, a composition that should be buried.

Again, Roberts’ choir demonstrates tonal quality and, along with the accompanist, responds to the subtleties and beautiful textures. As the trebles soar towards the conclusion and the organ’s pedal section builds up, it is over all too quickly.

A thoroughly enjoyable selection of repertoire and accomplished performances representing the highlights of a musical year at Newcastle Cathedral.