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Veni Emmanuel - Music for Advent
see end of review for track listing
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
Nicholas Haigh (organ)
rec. March 2012, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London; April 2012, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St. Albans, UK
Original texts, English, French, German translations included HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907579 [76:48]
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge was only established in its present mixed-voice form in 1971 but in the intervening four decades it has secured a position as one of the foremost Oxbridge college choirs. Graham Ross is only the choir’s third Director of Music, in succession to John Rutter (1975-1979) and Timothy Brown (1979-2010). Incidentally, it’s nice to see Rutter reunited with his old choir as engineer and producer for this present disc.
Advent carol services, generally held on the first Sunday in Advent - or the day before - are especially significant in Oxbridge colleges as they are usually the last major service in a college’s chapel before the end of the Michaelmas term; most of the students have dispersed once Christmas itself arrives. Therefore colleges with choirs usually mount a special service and the programme devised by Graham Ross offers a taste of the music that might be sung at such a service in Clare College but without the interwoven scriptural readings and hymns.
Of particular significance is the inclusion of the plainchant antiphons, the so-called Great ‘O’ Antiphons. These antiphons are prescribed to be said or sung with the Magnificat at Evensong - or Vespers - in the seven days up to December 24 but it’s not unusual to find all of them included in the music for a collegiate service, as here. It will be noted that eight antiphons are sung. Graham Ross explains in his useful notes that this follows an alternative practice in medieval England whereby each of the Great ‘O’ Antiphons was brought forward by one day to admit an extra antiphon on 24 December in honour of the Blessed Virgin.
Though the programme is described as Music for Advent it’s one in which the story of the Birth of Christ is foreshadowed. The anthems have been chosen with great discrimination and they are often very apposite to the antiphon that precedes them. Thus, for example, Herbert Howells’ The fear of the Lord takes a similar text and message to that contained in the antiphon O Sapientia. This anthem was commissioned to mark the 650th anniversary of the foundation of Clare College. It’s a choice example of late Howells with rich, searching harmonies and a very affecting concluding section, full of contemplation and satisfyingly full textures.
The distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams somehow finds time to compose music as well, chiefly vocal and choral music so far as I know. I’ve heard several of his pieces and O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel strikes me as the most impressive I’ve encountered. Indeed, it’s an arresting composition, making imaginative use of spatial effects - positioning the sopranos at a distance. The second half of the piece is dominated by an impassioned tenor solo which has quite a Jewish feel to it. This piece comes across as a really urgent cry for redemption from the human condition and it is very well done here.
Much better known is Jan Sandström’s brilliantly inventive re-imagining of Praetorius. This Clare performance, which benefits from an excellent solo quartet, manages to combine mysteriousness and clarity to excellent effect. It’s good that John Rutter should be represented by what I think is one of his finest short pieces. Hymn to the Creator of Light was written for the Evensong at which a new Howells commemorative window was dedicated in Gloucester Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival of 1992 - not 1993, as stated in the notes. I was present at that first performance and the piece made a strong impression on me. There’s an Eastern Orthodox feel to some of the writing in the opening pages and the quiet, inventive re-harmonisation of an old Lutheran chorale towards the end is wonderful.
This isn’t the only Gloucester connection in this programme, as Graham Ross points out. Herbert Howells wrote his Gloucester Magnificat - and Nunc dimittis - with the acoustic of what was his home cathedral specifically in mind. They constitute one of the finest of all settings of the Anglican Evening Canticles and the Clare choir does the Magnificat very well indeed - I like very much the way each strand is clarified during their singing of the superb doxology. Ross’s own I sing of a maiden was premièred in Gloucester Cathedral during the 2010 Three Choirs Festival. I’m afraid this setting does little for me: the writing is too jagged and dissonant for my taste and doesn’t relate well to the message of the text, I feel. However, I enjoyed Ross’s imaginative arrangement of the concluding hymn, O Come, O come, Emmanuel, whi8ch features some spicy harmonies, especially in the organ part.
I learned of the death of Sir John Tavener just as I was typing this review. His God is with us is a marvellous piece and the thrilling organ chords that thunder towards the end of it are still a tremendous coup de theatre, even when one knows they are coming. They sound suitably massive here. During the programme no fewer than nine members of the choir make solo contributions. All are excellent but here bass Nicholas Mogg gets a real chance to shine in Tavener’s declamatory solo and he makes the most of his opportunity. It’s nice to have the complete contrast of Rachmaninov’s serene setting of the ‘Hail Mary’ so soon after the Tavener. The performance is refined and beautifully controlled.
Of the other pieces, the two examples of English renaissance polyphony are very well done, as is Warlock’s rapt little piece. The Mendelssohn is also well done but I’m afraid I found it musically dull. It was imaginative, however, to place it after the Bach chorale since Mendelssohn uses the same chorale at the end of this extract from his unfinished oratorio. All the plainchant antiphons are sung with an excellent feeling for style.
This is a marvellous programme of Music for Advent and it is executed superbly by the Clare College Choir. It’s obvious that the standard built up during Timothy Brown’s long leadership, especially, has been fully maintained by Graham Ross. Much of the music is unaccompanied but when the organ is required the college’s Senior Organ Scholar, Nicholas Haigh, makes a telling contribution. We know John Rutter to be an expert composer. He’s a pretty dab hand with the recording equipment too, it seems; the sound quality for this disc is excellent. I enjoyed this disc greatly, as I hope others will do.
Track listing Plainchant Veni, veni, Emmanuel [0:52] William BYRD (c 1539-1623) Vigilate [4:04] Plainchant Antiphon I: O Sapientia [0:54] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) The fear of the Lord (1976) [5:34] Plainchant Antiphon II: O Adonai [0:59] Roderick WILLIAMS (b. 1965) O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel (1997) [6:20] Plainchant Antiphon III: O Radix Jesse [0:55] Michael PRAETORIUS (c 1571-1621) arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954) Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [4:03] Plainchant Antiphon IV: O Clavis David [1:00] John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558) Audivi vocem de caelo [3:49] Plainchant Antiphon V: O Oriens [0:50] John RUTTER (b. 1945) Hymn to the Creator of Light (1992) [7:34] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 436 [1:33] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) There shall be a star from Jacob - from Christus [6:34] Plainchant Antiphon VI: O Rex Gentium [0:52] Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down (1927) [4:20] Graham ROSS (b. 1985) I sing of a maiden (2010) [3:55 Plainchant Antiphon VII: O Emmanuel [0:48] Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) God is with us (1987) [5:09] Plainchant Antiphon VIII: O Virgo virginum [1:06] Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Bogoroditse Dyevo - from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, No. 6 [2:42] Herbert HOWELLS Magnificat (Gloucester Service) (1946) [6:41] Trad. Arr. Graham ROSS O Come, O come, Emmanuel [5:07]