Cornhill Visions – A Century of Musical Innovation

Cornhill Visions
A Century of Musical Innovation
The Choir of St Michael’s Cornhill, Jonathan Rennert
Regent Records, REGCD550. 66’03

The City of London’s churches are something of an institution. Architecturally fascinating, they have idiosyncrative opening and service times, with most closed at the weekends. Many retain medieval links to city guilds and livery companies. With an area of just over one square mile, the City of London has 46 churches for a resident population of less than 10,000 but a working week population of around one million. It is to the latter that most of the churches cater, not least in thriving programmes of lunchtime musical events.

This CD is a celebration of the past 100 years of music at St Michael’s, Cornhill. A medieval foundation dating back to pre-Norman time, the 12th century church was built on top of foundations of the Roman Basilica. It was replaced after the 1666 Great Fire of London. It retains long-standing links with The Drapers’ livery company. It has a strong musical tradition, with past organists including William Boyce (1736-1768), Master of the King’s Musick and organist at the Chapel Royal. The past decade has seen just three organist Directors of Music, with Harold Darke and the present incumbent Jonathan Rennert completing all but 13 of the past 104 years.

The Guild connection is recognised from the start, with Harold Darke’s The eyes of all, written as a choral grace for the Company of Air Pilots, whose annual service is held in St Michael’s. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a friend of Darke’s and would attend concerts in St Michael’s, sitting at the back of the church, as did other notables such as Herbert Howells and George Thalben-Ball. Vaughan Williams’s powerful 1921 Lord, Thou hast been our refuge is notable for the appearance towards the end of a trumpet (played by William Morley) intoning the well-known St Anne hymn melody. It is followed by three more Darke pieces, starting with Even such is time, set to a plaintive poem written by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618, the night before his execution.

Darke’s Be strong and of a good courage is a celebratory piece that uses the full resources of the enormous St Michael’s organ that looms in the front corner of the church, dominating both visually and aurally, when given the chance. The organ also makes a prominent, and technically complex, contribution to Arnold Bax’s Magnificat, dedicated to Harold Darke and first performed in St Michael’s in 1949.

The rest of the programme is dedicated to younger, living composers, including, notably, the current Composer in Residence Rhiannon Randle. Her reflective 6-part motet Da pacem Domine was first performed during communion on Palm Sunday 2019. Her 2018 memoria is an extraordinary work, drawing on a much wider aural tradition. It opens with the tolling bell of St Michael’s and the evocative sound of an erhu, the Chinese double-string bowed instrument. Soprano Nicola Corbishley and countertenor Patrick Craig are soloists in a wonderfully etherial sound world created by the 8-part choir. I would have loved to have seen the faces of the congregation that first heard this piece as an Evensong anthem.

A Psalm is included to reflect the Monday service of sung Evensong, with a effectively simple setting by the present Director of Music, Jonathan Rennert. Philip Moore’s Here rests his head was written in 2016 for the 300th anniversary of the poet Thomas Grey, who was baptised in St Michael’s. Gareth Treseder is a member of the choir and a composer. His Jesu, the very thought of Thee converts a hymn tune into a choral anthem, including a spot for him as tenor soloist.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Vision of Aeroplanes was composed in 1956 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Harold Darke’s appointment as organist. It is based on Exekiel’s curious Old Testement vision of a flying winged object hat lifted from the earth with wheels. The story is set in dramatic fashion, the virtuoso organ part (here played by Jeremiah Stephenson, a former organ scholar at St Michael’s) adding much to the scene setting.

After Rhiannon Randle’s memoria, Vaughen Williams completes the programme with his unaccompanied 1942 Valiant-for-Truth alloweing several solo moments for choir members. It is a setting of words from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is performed St Michael’s with a subdued ending, which differs from the published score, and is based on a suggestion by Vaughan Williams himself.

The singing of the semi-professional choir is impressive. The acoustics are comfortably warm and the choice of music, particularly the newer pieces, is excellent. Jonathan Rennert directs with sensitivity to the music and the space, allowing the music to speak. Benjamin Newlove is the organist for the accompanied works, except for Jeremiah Stephenson in the Vision of Aeroplanes and Here rests his head which is accompanied by Gordon Thorpe, as in the first performance. The CD programme notes can be accessed here. An interesting general guide to churches in the City of London can be found here.

The eyes of all – Harold Darke*
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge – Ralph Vaughan Williams
Even such is time – Harold Darke*
Be strong and of a good courage – Harold Darke*
O gladsome light – Harold Darke
Da pacem Domine – Rhiannon Randle*
Magnificat – Arnold Bax
Psalm 79 – Jonathan Rennert*
Here rests his head – Philip Moore*
Jesu, the very thought of Thee – Gareth Treseder*
A Vision of Aeroplanes – Ralph Vaughan Williams
memoria – Rhiannon Randle*
Valiant-for-Truth – Ralph Vaughan Williams
*First recording