John RUTTER (b.1945)
Gloria (1974) [18:02]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 - 1990)
Chichester Psalms (1965) [17:22]
Francis POULENC (1899 - 1963)
Quatre petites Prières de Saint François d'Assise (1948); Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1935); Exultate deo (1941); Salve Regina (1941)
Choir of Clare College; Cambridge; Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor); Rachel Masters (harp); Jonathan Brown (organ); The Wallace Collection; Timothy Brown; Richard Pearce (organ); Corydon Singers; Matthew Best (Poulenc only)
rec. 25 June 1995, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Rutter and Bernstein) and 25 June 1995, St Silas, Kentish Town, London (Poulenc). DDD

I have always loved John Rutter’s music because it communicates so easily with the audience. His religious music never preaches to you; it can be accepted as a beautiful musical experience even for those who aren’t religious. The Gloria has a rather brash outgoing persona, but that’s no bad thing. It was written to a commission from the USA. The scoring for brass and a handful of percussion instruments is perfect for this most celebratory of works. Written in three sections, the outer ones are driven by strong rhythms and triumphant shouts from the chorus, whilst the central movement is a gentle and restrained prayer setting the words beginning Domine Deus, Rex coelestis (O Lord God, Heavenly King). Rutter has obviously taken to heart the concept of dancing for joy - that there is praise in the dance (just think of the poem Tomorrow shall be my dancing day). This work positively trips the light fantastic in every bar. It’s a marvellous piece of praise and a wonderful composition. Full marks to this remarkable composer - and when you look at his list of works you realise just how remarkable he is - for his ability to write such a work and delight us all.

I have never thought of Leonard Bernstein as a major composer for the concert hall, but he was a genius when writing for the Broadway stage. Since his death there has been a growing band of admirers who assert his concert music’s greatness and significance. Recordings abound of these pieces, but, to me, they are negligible at best. I won’t go into what I consider them to be at worst. Occasionally, a concert work surfaces and pleases - the 1st Symphony shows the path he didn’t take as a composer and that is our loss - but many of them were Broadway-derived - the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Candide Overture and the Three Dance Episodes from On The Town. The Chichester Psalms is one of his truly great works not conceived for the Great White Way. Written for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival this is a joyous celebration, in the same outgoing manner as the Rutter Gloria. Written for chorus with brass, strings and percussion, Bernstein made a version for use when an orchestra couldn’t be found, or, one imagines, afforded, for organ, harp and percussion; it is this version which is used here. After a short introduction the first setting, of Psalm 100, is superb in its extrovert nature. This is as catchy as any tune from any of his musicals. The middle setting starts with a boy treble with female voices singing Psalm 23. This is brutally interrupted by the men screaming words from Psalm 2 - Why do the nations rage? - and the movement ends with the two combining in slightly uncomfortable agreement. The final setting, of Psalm 131, starts with one of Bernstein’s over-the-top intensely emotional outbursts, with high tortured strings and scrunchy harmonies guaranteed to appeal directly to the heart. When this music is played by the organ, as it is here, the emotional impact is lessened. That is no bad thing for it allows the setting of the words Lord, Lord, My heart is not haughty to seem less elevated than they do in the orchestral edition. This scaled-down version is a better showcase for the words and sentiments set. I was surprised to read in T.C. Brown’s - I suppose this to be the conductor Timothy Brown - very good note in the booklet that some of the material for the Chichester Psalms came from discarded Broadway music. A chorus in the Prologue to West Side Story became the setting of Psalm 2 and an unfinished musical The Skin of Our Teeth provided material for the whole work. Perhaps this explains its sheer enjoyment value. In the long run who cares? This is a great work, as is the Rutter, and these performances by the choir of Clare College are excellent and well worth having, even if you have other versions.

Poulenc’s religious pieces bring one back down to earth. After the heady brew of Rutter and Bernstein this is like drinking a glass of cold water, so pure and simple are his works. The emotion is different here, much restraint and deference, and there is a great deal of anguish in the Litanies à la Vierge Noire. The Corydon Singers perform these miniatures very well, responding to every nuance with a wide range of dynamic and feeling.

This is a very attractive collection of modern(ish) religious music which is entertaining as well as enlightening, and it is well worth having. Don’t miss it on any account.

Bob Briggs