MUSIC / St John's College Choir - Cambridge Festival

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The Independent Culture
Dmitri Smirnov has broken his addiction to the poetry of William Blake and has set the poetry of John Milton. The Six Choruses given their world premiere at St John's College, Cambridge, on Tuesday by the Chapel Choir (conductor Christopher Robinson) concluded with Milton's famous versification of Psalm 136: 'Let us with a gladsome mind'.

Lovers of 'Monklands', the familiar hymnodic version of this text, should have no fear. A tribute to the poet's Alma Mater (and Smirnov's for three months earlier this year), the piece sounded more like a starting point than a finished product, responding to the poem's successive couplets with a mechanical alternation of high and low voices.

In contrast, a setting of the Lord's Prayer in austere plainchant style was impressive and moving, lingering poignantly over its repeated entreaties for deliverance. An Ave Maria and a tiny Via Crucis explored a world similar to Tavener's Hymn to the Mother of God, sung as an encore.

But even for nationalists, approaching the 20th-century English choral heritage can be full of pitfalls. Howells's unaccompanied Regina Caeli, delivered rapturously by the choir, showed an insider getting it right. For others, Smirnov included, better to follow the example of the concluding work, Britten's near-perfect Hymn to St Cecilia - music that glances at a tradition, then turns aside to do its own thing.

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