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Sing, ye Heavens.
The Cambridge Singers,
Thelma Owen (harp), John Scott (organ),
The City of London Sinfonia Brass,
Directed by John Rutter.
Recorded Church of St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London.
8 & 11 February 2000. DDD
Collegium Records. COLCD 126 [76.45]
 Amazon UK  

1. O God, our help in ages past. (Croft arr. Rutter) [4.35]
2. The King of love my Shepherd is. (Irish Trad arr. Rutter) [4.08]
3. A mighty fortress is our God. (Martin Luther arr. Rutter) [4.48]
4. Veni, Creator Spiritus. (Gregorian Chant) [3.35]
5. Lo! He comes with clouds descending. (18Cent English arr. Rutter) [4.11]
6. Love Divine, all loves excelling. (R.H.Pritchard arr. Rutter) [3.40]
7. Pange Lingua. (Gregorian Chant) [3.52]
8. Let all mortal flesh keep silence. (French carol arr. Rutter) [3.31]
9. Vexilla Regis. (Gregorian Chant) [3.23]
10. Drop, drop, slow tears. (Orlando Gibbons) [1.46]
11. When I survey the wondrous Cross. (E,Miller arr. Rutter) [3.20]
12. Christ the Lord is risen today. (From Lyra Davidica (1708) arr. Rutter) [4.12]
13. Be thou my vision. (Irish arr.Rutter) [4.39]
14. All things bright and beautiful. (English arr. Rutter) [2.20]
15. Morning has broken. (Gaelic arr. Rutter) [1.41]
16. Amazing grace. (American arr. Rutter) [4.16]
17. We plough the fields, and scatter. (German. J.A.P.Schulz arr Rutter) [2.38]
18. Glory to thee, my God, this night. (Thomas Tallis) [2.42]
19. The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended. (C.C.Scholefield arr. Rutter) [3.18]
20. Eternal God. (John Rutter) [3.07]
21. Christ is made the sure Foundation. (Purcell arr. Rutter) [5.30}

I have just spent a splendid hour and a quarter listening to this brand new release. John Rutter has compiled a collection of twenty-one "Hymns for all Time" - under the title "Sing, ye Heavens". My conscience tells me that I must admit that at first glance it didn't seem a particularly enticing CD but I was proved completely wrong and am happy to say so. What he has done (I assume he initiated the project and made the selection), is to gather together hymns from the last fifteen centuries of Christian Europe. Those are his own words on the contents of the disc in which he admits that there is no attempt made to include examples from all the multi-stranded history of hymnody. Certainly it would be better to refer to this selection as Western European - Eastern Europe is not represented except where the universality of Catholicism in pre-Reformation Christian Europe would have made the Gregorian chant selections normal in countries further east and still within the Roman Church.

John Rutter admits that the selection was made was from the Anglican viewpoint. Certainly this will make many of the hymns familiar to listeners and as one brought up in the Anglican tradition I found myself joining in the singing as memories of years ago came flooding back - Sunday School, Sunday evenings in chilly churches and words that I didn't think I could still remember. With the exception of Rutter's own composition contemporary trends are absent with no attempt to incorporate anything from the "happy clappers" of today. Inevitably with its Anglican predominance much is made of the Hymns Ancient and Modern and later the impact that Ralph Vaughan-Williams as Editor of The English Hymnal of 1906 had. Some of the selection of tunes to go with the words was by R V-W and his wide-ranging selection and open mind as to sources left their mark.

Hymns from the Psalms is the opening section of the seven groupings. Croft's great melody O God, our help in ages past was a rousing opening with a brass Fanfare, organ and drums. An Irish traditional melody with a simple harp accompaniment was used for "The King of love my Shepherd is " from Psalm 23. Luther's A mighty fortress (Eine Feste Burg) was given a suitably martial arrangement with organ and brass. Invocations, the second grouping, has three works, Veni, Creator Spiritus, in Gregorian Chant with the mixed choir alternating verses, Lo, he comes sounds magnificent with brass and organ in the big church acoustic with its resonances. Love Divine, all loves excelling, set simply against organ is another of those tunes that won't go away, sung here in another John Rutter arrangement that allows the hymn to be sung unadorned for two verses and then the higher voices to soar in a splendid ending.

For the examples from the Eucharist, the Gregorian Chant Pange lingua again uses the mixed chorus in alternating verses, the full grouping coming together at the end. Let all mortal flesh keep silence is an old French carol using a translated Fourth Century text. The marriage of tune to words was an unlikely but inspired one by Vaughan-Williams and a hauntingly simple tune with organ and choir is delightful. The next category Passiontide and Easter, had more plainchant with Vexilla Regis, and a little gem by Orlando Gibbons Drop, drop, slow tears sung a capella by full choir. Tradition returned in When I survey and Christ the Lord is risen today (this with the full Victorian effect of brass and organ).

The Folk Hymns selection rightly avoided any big-scale boosting of these simple tunes, with light textures and regular use of womens' voices only set against the harp. The ravishingly haunting Be thou my vision (an old Irish tune Shane), All things bright and beautiful in a light, airy, speeded-up arrangement of the famous tune, Morning has broken (that's the one that appeared in the charts a few years back), and Amazing Grace from the US made up a delightful group. The old harvest hymn We plough the fields I now learn was originally German dating from 1800. Glory to thee, my God - sublime, serene melody based on Thomas Tallis' canon is an undoubted masterpiece and The Day thou gavest, Lord made up the brief Evening Hymns section - the latter ending with some fine descant and organ support. John Rutter's own Eternal God, a pleasant tuneful work that is perfectly at home among so much that is already well-known, and Purcell's Christ is made the sure Foundation made a rousing conclusion with full chorus, brass and organ.

I like John Rutter's arrangements very much. He seems to avoid overdressing inherently good melodies and lets the original appeal speak for itself. The Cambridge Singers are magnificent. Their diction is impeccable and they have subtlety and refinement as well as power when called on. How refreshing to hear a choir singing with spirit and not in the prissy, mannered style that so often typifies Church singing in this country. The recording is full and clear and the big acoustic and reverbaration add to the appeal. The organ, harp and the Brass playing give excellent support on this splendid CD.

Whatever one 's views on religion today, our culture would be losing something irreplaceable if the tunes and words, so closely wedded as they are, from this great mass of material in our country's traditions and national psyche were allowed to wither away. A very warm welcome for a fine disc that already, with months to go, could be a good suggestion for a Christmas present.


Harry Downey

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