Record Review: Celestial Dawn - The Pembroke College Girls' Choir conducted by Anna Lapwood

Celestial Dawn is the second commercial release from the Pembroke College Girls' Choir, which was founded in 2018 by the director of music at Pembroke College Cambridge, Anna Lapwood, in order to give local 11-18 year olds the chance to sing in a Cambridge chapel. When I first read about the release and the choir, particularly Anna’s notes about the challenges of keeping the group going through the lockdowns and the impact that the group has on the girls’ social and musical development, it immediately struck a chord with me, having gone through a very similar experience myself as an ex-member of Portsmouth Cathedral Choir, and I couldn’t wait to give it a listen.


Upon pre-listening inspection, the repertoire is what first stands out about this CD. As one of the foremost champions of promoting diversity and inclusion in classical music, Lapwood’s selection of both secular and sacred works encompasses traditional favourites such as Parry’s Ely Canticles and Menelssohn’s O For The Wings Of a Dove, as well as giving space for lesser known pieces by French composer Nadia Boulanger, African-American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh, British-Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik, and even a new commission written especially for the choir, You Know Me by Armenian composer Kristina Arakelyan. With such diverse and mature repertoire that will hopefully encourage more choirs to explore these composers’ works, one might easily forget that the singers are all aged between 11 and 18 before even pressing play. 


The illusion carries on, however, as upon pressing play, the grace and purity of the young voices is the only clue a listener will have as to their age: the breadth, maturity, and cohesiveness of the overall sound in both unison and harmonic moments is admirable, and the subtlety, intonation, and balance in the solos from the older members in particular stands out as a marked display of musicianship well beyond their years. To think that these pieces were rehearsed over Zoom, and recorded with each member of the choir standing diligently 2m apart makes the ultimate aural experience even more of a credit to Lapwood’s conducting and leadership, and the girls’ determination and hard work. 


Though it would be hard to find an album with a more carefully considered track list, each piece linking personally to the group in some form that really deserves explaining (and is explained in the excellent CD notes!), for the sake of this review not spanning five rolls of parchment, I must limit my comments to a few of the pieces that stood out to me the most. 


I always love it when I listen to a CD and hear a work by a composer I am not familiar with, and this is exactly how this CD begins. Opening with Cantique by Nadia Boulanger, a French composer and pianist known far more for her teaching than compositional or performance work, and who I now know taught some of the biggest names in 20th Century classical music such as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and John Elliot Gardiner, the listener is greeted by a number of very welcome surprises. Having sung for a number of years in a cathedral choir myself, I expected this CD to be exclusively sacred music, sung in Latin, and arranged for alto, soprano and organ, creating an evensong-at-home atmosphere. So it was a pleasure to hear the delicate, exposed piano chords opening the CD, followed by an intrinsically beautiful melody and poignant text sung in French, in a testament to Lapwood’s far from predictable repertoire selection. 


A choral CD would not be complete without a setting of the famous text ‘Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’ - ‘Where clarity and love are found, There is God’. This setting, written by British-Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik for voice and piano, is a gorgeous and accomplished display of the choir splitting into two parts. As the maths might suggest, singing in two parts rather than unison is, well, twice as difficult, but the choir handles the timing and balance like professionals, passing the melody and text between them seamlessly to create an incredibly enticing and soothing soundscape. 


It is hard to make a piece as popular as Mendelssohn’s O For the Wings of a Dove stand out on a disc containing as much interesting repertoire as this, but the Pembroke College Girls' Choir does just that. From the captivating opening in which the soloist demonstrates real technical skill in breath control, diction, and properly enunciated consonants (a quality distinctly lacking in many youth choirs), through the almost fugal two part harmony section with an impressively low tessitura in places, this refreshing arrangement by Lapwood is elegantly and skilfully handled. 


I am listening to the CD on the Primare CD35 CD player, into the Primare I35 integrated amplifier, and out via Chord Shawline cable through a pair of Dali Oberon 7s floorstanding loudspeakers. This classic Scandinavian pairing has always been a favourite of mine, and once again it manages to completely transport me to the Pembroke Chapel recording setting, conveying every subtle phrasing and dynamic change, every syllable and note as clear as if the choir were performing live in my listening room. A system worthy of such a super performance! This is, of course, as much a credit to the performers, conductor, sound engineers and producers as it is to the HiFi equipment, and doubly so considering the challenging socially distanced recording circumstances. Bravo Pembroke College Girls' Choir - I look forward to your Christmas album!


The album is available to buy on CD as well as MP3, FLAC and Hi-Res FLAC digital files from Presto Classical and Signum Records themselves, and is also available on all major streaming platforms. However, we do always encourage listeners to buy artists’ works rather than streaming them, not just for the generally superior sound quality, but also because the pittance artists earn from streaming giants such as Spotify or Apple Music is frankly an insult to the hard work and skill they have put in to record the album. In fact a digital download or CD is also more environmentally friendly than using a streaming service! Read more about that here. Essentially, stream once to see if you like it, then buy it if you want to listen to it again!


Do check out our interview with Anna Lapwood here to learn more about her and indeed more about the recording of this CD, and to explore Anna’s other endeavours, check out her website and social media linked below:


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