John Rutter’s Magnificat hits exactly the right tone for the words, which are a shout of praise from the Virgin Mary. A composer friend of mine once asked his pregnant partner what being pregnant felt like and she said that it made her feel ecstatic and that is how he set the words - with an heightened feeling of ecstasy in his music. Rutter takes a different, yet equally valid, road and gives us an interpretation of the words which emphasises the joy experienced by a new, or soon to be, mother. He has time for reflection, and there is a good balance between the extrovert and intimate. As you’d expect with Rutter, there’s a wealth of good tunes, all very singable. Would that more contemporary composers understood the voice as well as Rutter. The orchestration is brilliant and very colourful, with lots of trumpet fanfares complementing the festive spirit of the music.
Brother Heinrich’s Christmas is a different matter entirely, in that it is a story told by a speaker, with orchestral accompaniment. This simple tale, by Rutter himself, concerns the 14th-century Dominican mystic Heinrich Suso who, according to legend, notated the carol In dulci jubilo after it had been sung to him by a band of angels. He is here aided by Sigismund, his donkey! As you’d expect from a German performance, the story is told in a German translation, but that shouldn’t worry anyone for the language is quite simple and it could make a good aid for a child learning German. It might also interest them in classical music!
This is a very enjoyable disk; indeed, everything about it is a delight. Carmen Fuggiss is a good soloist in the Magnificat, with her rich tone and good vocal control, displaying a fine sense of what vibrato is all about. Speaker Arndt Schmöle is a friendly Uncle of a storyteller, doing the voices with a smile on his face - you can hear it - and obviously enjoying himself. The Hannover Children’s Choir is clearly a well drilled ensemble which gives a very spirited performance. That said, I can’t help thinking that of all works a setting of the Magnificat screams out for women’s voices! Jörg Breiding directs straightforward performances, letting the music speak for itself and not imposing himself or any “special” ideas.
Both works have been recorded by Rutter himself. Brother Heinrich’s Christmas can be found on a very entertaining disk called Three Musical Fables, where it is coupled with The Reluctant Dragon and The Wind in the Willows, performed by Richard Baker and Brian Kay with the Cambridge Singers, the King's Singers and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by both Richard Hickox and John Rutter himself (Collegium CSCD 513). The Magnificat can be found (coupled with The Falcon and Two Festival Anthems), in an authoritative performance by the Cambridge Singers, the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral, the City of London Sinfonia under the composer’s direction (Collegium COLCD 113) or, at mid-price the same performance can be found coupled with Rutter’s sublime Requiem (Collegium CSCD 504).
I have to say that the composer-led performances must take precedence in any recomendation, but this disk is very fine, and despite there being the composer’s own recordings available, it’s always good to hear a different interpretation. Even if the thought of Brother Heinrich’s Christmas in German doesn’t appeal, this performance of the Magnificat is splendid and well worth hearing. The disk is presented in a gatefold sleeve and half the booklet is concerned with a delightful picture-book which accompanies the Brother Heinrich story. The notes are in German and English.