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Reviewer: Andrew Mellor

There is a lot more ‘Evensong Live’ here than on the recent disc bearing that name from King’s College, Cambridge (1/20). Here we have a straight document of the 2019 Ash Wednesday service from the chapel of St John’s College, the same event broadcast on BBC Radio 3 but this one captured and mixed in-house. There’s no funny business – no welcome, no introit, no hymn – and the organ doesn’t sound until the voluntary: an embracing, solemn account of Bach’s Prelude in E minor, BWV548.

All of which conveys the atmosphere of the day and the marking of it at this address. We hear ‘a record of a unique event’ for Andrew Nethsingha, who acknowledges imperfections (not that there are many) and draws attention charmingly to a moment of crisis management from the 13-year-old soloist in Allegri’s Miserere. That’s life and that’s liturgy. The Allegri, and most things here, draw attention away from musicality and towards something else, however strong the musicality in play. Some of the best moments are in Byrd’s Preces and Responses. There are deeper reasons why but to cite chapter and verse, try the final ‘Amen’: given a distinctive shape, but all about the weight of a conclusion and not about the notes, despite the curvaceous beauty (even the tenor false relation is downplayed).

Elsewhere, there’s everything you’d expect from this choir. Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine demonstrates a take on the polyphony’s line and weave but avoids momentary Affekt (though the dwelling on ‘Sion deserta facta est’ gets a little close). The malleable, sensitive trebles have what seems to me an unparalleled ability to invest text and phrase with meaning without focus-pulling, which is a decent description of the choir’s whole approach.

One piece features on both this and the King’s release: the Magnificat from Weelkes’s Short Service. You can enjoy comparing two accounts from the current vintage of these two neighbouring choirs – John’s mostly about blend and text, King’s about rhythmic bounce and top-line brightness – but that’s not the point. This release conveys an experience in a place, a moment in time. Yet it also puts a price on something available free online, where there are dozens more like it (sjcchoir.co.uk/ listen/webcasts).

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