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Anthems of Charles Wood

Anthems of Charles Wood,
Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, G. Webber
available at Amazon
Vol. 1 | Priory Records PRCD 754


available at Amazon
Vol. 2 | Priory Records PRCD 779

Not having grown up in the Anglican/Episcopalian church and not having spent much of my singing career in churches of that tradition, I am enjoying the chance to discover many of the chestnuts of that repertory with Master Ionarts as he encounters them for the first time in his boy choir. The latest anthem by Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926) we have heard Master Ionarts singing around the house is O Thou the Central Orb (stream it here), which led me to this two-CD set of Wood's anthems (including almost all of them, minus a few pieces of juvenilia) by the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, under the direction of Geoffrey Webber. After his studies at Cambridge, at Selwyn College, Wood stayed there, holding various positions at Gonville and Caius College, and was eventually appointed organist and director of music there, so the connection is significant.

Some specialists of this era of Anglican music have criticized Wood's choral music, much of it not actually written for his choir at Gaius, as being a little utilitarian and dull, as he was more interested in other types of composition, for which he is not at all remembered today. (Wood composed six string quartets and an opera, The Pickwick Papers based on Dickens, which would be interesting to hear.) The first volume of this set, focused on anthems for Easter and Ordinary Time, does not exactly contradict that assessment, although some high points include Sunlight All Golden, a radiant anthem for four treble voices, the intense Expectans expectavi (actually an English poem by Charles Sorley), and the tender, meditative Jesu, the Very Thought Is Sweet (some of Wood's other anthems and carols can also be consulted online). While Volume 1 is probably of interest only for the completist, the second disc, focused on anthems from Advent to Lent, features pieces of consistently higher quality.

One of the delights is the discovery of some gorgeous texts, not least those that were preserved and adapted by George Woodward, with whom Wood collaborated on the Cambridge Carol-Book. Wood founded the choir at Caius as a traditional one of men and boys, of course (still the best way to hear his music), but since 1979 it has been composed of undergraduate men and women. The women heard on both volumes sing with a clear, mostly straight, treble-like sound, but as sometimes happens the greater strength of adult voices on the upper parts can unbalance the overall sound, causing some stridency from the tenors especially. These are good, if not great, performances, captured in resonant acoustics, neither of which happen to be the college chapel, with organs of historical interest, which provide attractive sound canvases for a handful of Wood's pieces for organ included here.

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