|MusicWeb International, April 2008
There are two threads running through this programme. One is that of music by composers who have connections with Eton College. Both Parry and Malcolm Boyle were pupils at the school while Henry Ley served on the staff.
The other thread, and a more pronounced one, is a celebration of the treble voice. The Eton choir has trebles in the age range 13 to 15 years, whereas most cathedral choirs will have quite a few boys who are much younger than this and, perhaps, only a small number at the upper end of the age range for trebles. Indeed, several of the soloists on this disc came to Eton after serving as choristers in some of England’s more notable Anglican choirs, including that of King’s College, Cambridge. I think the maturity of the Eton treble section is an important element in its overall sound.
The choir consists almost entirely of pupils – I suspect from the choir listing that one member, an alto, is a master. That does mean that the tenors and basses will be aged, I imagine, between 16 and 18. That does have an implication in that there are just a few occasions in the bigger pieces where one feels a lack of vocal weight in the lower parts. I noticed this at times in the Stanford Magnificat, in the Boyle setting and in I was glad. To be honest this factor didn’t weigh too heavily with me but it’s worth mentioning as other listeners may be more worried by this than I was.
However, the chief impression one is left with after hearing this disc is the excellence and polish of the choir. Mind you, I’m not at all surprised at this given that the choir training is in the expert hands of Ralph Allwood. He has built a formidable – and deserved – reputation as one of the finest choral trainers in the UK and he is particularly successful in his work with younger singers, as witnessed by the superb Rodolfus Choir, which is one of other choirs that he directs.
David Goode, the College’s Organist – and a well-known virtuoso recitalist in his own right – comments in his booklet note that the choir as constituted for this recording contained a particularly rich crop of treble voices. That judgement is amply borne out by what we hear from the various soloists. Without exception they sing splendidly and with no little intelligence and if I don’t mention any of their contributions individually that does not imply that the singer or singers in question are less than first rate.
Among the solos that particularly caught my eye were those by Joshua Cooter in the glorious Stanford Magnificat and by Adam Berman in the Franck. The latter is a piece to which I don’t usually warm but when the solo is sung with such clarity and purity it’s a pleasure to hear. Adam Berman reappears in O for the wings of a dove. He’s the latest in a very long line of trebles to essay this piece, a line that begins with Master Ernest Lough. I doubt young Adam need fear comparisons, certainly not among the recordings I’ve heard, for he sings this plum from the treble repertoire very well indeed.
Two of the pieces contain especially demanding solos. Stanford’s A Song of Wisdom demands intelligence as well as excellent technique and Alex Roberts displays both. But for me the finest singing of all in this feast of trebles comes from Tom Norrington in Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. This gem is a challenge even for vastly experienced sopranos. Tom displays enviable breath control and makes a lovely open sound. He projects the solo line confidently and pitches every note right in the middle. The grace with which he sings the final phrases – that exquisite ‘Amen’ – is particularly pleasing.
There’s one other soloist on the disc, baritone Alex Jones, to whom falls the demanding, extended solo in Parry’s Hear my words, ye people. When I listened to the disc for the first time, prior to a detailed reading of the booklet, I thought an adult, probably a member of staff, had taken the solo but in fact Alex Jones is a pupil. The sound that he produces is strong and mature and he makes a very positive impression. This substantial Parry anthem is well done by the choir as a whole. Parry is probably the most distinguished musical alumnus of Eton College; he was a pupil there between 1861 and 1866. His celebrated I was glad makes a majestic conclusion to the programme.
Much less well known is the music of Malcolm Boyle, who was a chorister at Eton, probably in the second decade of the twentieth century, I presume. He went on to serve as Organist of Chester Cathedral (1932-1949). His anthem is a setting of words from Psalm 65 and the prophecy of Isaiah. It opens confidently, the music forthright in tone. Later on there’s a fine, extended melody for unison trebles at the words “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace.” The grand ending is enhanced by the contribution of David Goode at the console of the chapel’s fine organ – but that’s true of every accompanied piece on this CD. Anyone who likes the church music of Parry or Stanford should warm to this piece by Boyle and I’m pleased to have made its acquaintance.
Much better known is Henry Ley’s A Prayer of King Henry VI. This lovely little piece is known at Eton as the Founder’s Prayer because, of course, the author of the text, King Henry VI, founded Eton College in 1440 – and also founded its sister establishment, King’s College, Cambridge. The authorship of the text alone would have made it appropriate to include this piece here but Henry Ley was a predecessor of Ralph Allwood, serving as Eton’s Precentor and Director of Music from 1926-1945. His exquisite miniature is expertly served by the present incumbent and by today’s crop of choristers.
In summary, this is a fine and very enjoyable disc. The performance standard is uniformly very high and the engineers have provided very good sound. If the programme appeals then collectors can invest in confidence.