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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Hail! Queen of Heaven: Music in honour of the Virgin Mary

Gregorian chant: Alma Redemptoris Mater [1’50"]
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Ave Virgo sanctissima [3’45"]
Fifteenth Century English: There is no rose of such virtue [3’52"]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611): Ave Maria (à 4) [1’48"]
Richard DERING (c1580-1630): Ave Virgo gloriosa [1’58"]
Gregorian chant: Ave Regina caelorum [1’30"]
Giovanni Perluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594): Stabat Mater [8’08"]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896): Ave Maria [3’10"]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901): Laudi alla Vergine Maria [4’55"]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971): Ave Maria [1’56"]
Pyotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893): Dostoino Yest [2’18"]
Gregorian chant: Regina caeli laetare [1’32"]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983): Regina caeli [2’58"]
Arr Charles WOOD (1866-1926): Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary [1’52"]
Pierre VILLETTE (b.1926): Hymne à la Vierge [3’27"]
Giles SWAYNE (b. 1946): Magnificat [3’40"]
Gregorian chant: Salve Regina [2’23"]
William BYRD (1543-1623): alleluia. Ave Maria [4’15"]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA: Vidi speciosam [5’40"]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934): Ave Maria [4’15"]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA: Ave Maria (for double choir) [4’20"]
The Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter
Recorded in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral in January 1991
COLLEGIUM CSCD 508 [71’27"]
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This is one of a series of mid-price reissues of a series which John Rutter originally made for his own Collegium label in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As with their other reissues Collegium have retained all the original notes by Rutter himself. These are excellent and perceptive, and they also provide full texts and translations (other labels, please copy!). I bought the original CD (then entitled ‘Ave Gratia Plena’) and the only changes I can detect from the first release is a different cover and the inclusion of a photograph of the performers recording in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral where, on the evidence here, the acoustics are as magnificent as the architecture.

The thorough documentation does not indicate that the original (very good) sound has been remastered. I thought that on an A/B comparison I detected that the older recording sounded just a touch fuller and richer with perhaps a degree of greater reverberation but this may just be the sonic equivalent of a "trick of the light". However, anyone investing in this CD will have no cause whatsoever to complain of the quality of the recording which is excellent throughout.

The same is most certainly true of the performances themselves. The chosen pieces encompass a range of styles but the choir performs everything with easy, natural musicianship. The 28 voices blend beautifully. The basses are firm but sound youthfully supple; there is no hint of undue heaviness. The soprano line is possessed of a lovely, ethereal purity (without ever sounding ‘pale’ or ‘white’) while the inner parts are woven into the texture smoothly and seamlessly.

Rutter has chosen his programme shrewdly. It is divided into four sections, each one corresponding to a segment of the church’s year and each introduced by a mellifluously sung plainchant antiphon. The sections are: Advent to Candlemas; Candlemas to Holy Week; Easter to the Sunday after Pentecost; and Trinity to Advent.

So, there is variety in the programme but what does not vary is the quality of the singing. The vocal blend is such that we find the motet by Guerrero (track 2) unfolding serenely; every strand of the polyphony is clear and carefully balanced. Indeed, this description could apply equally well to any of the polyphonic items included here. The well-judged recording balances the two SATB choirs distinctly for the Palestrina Stabat Mater (track 7). This concise setting is scrupulously phrased though I could imagine that some listeners might prefer a more red-blooded choral sound.

The Bruckner motet (track 8) is distinguished by perfect tuning – crucial for this kind of music. The dynamic control is very impressive and Rutter’s singers have the necessary fullness of tone for Bruckner’s climaxes. The Verdi, by contrast, is for women’s voices only (track 9). It demands, and receives, pure and chaste singing.

Herbert Howells’ setting of Regina Caeli (track 13) is an early work, dating from 1916 when it was written for R. R. Terry’s celebrated choir at Westminster Cathedral. It may be new to some listeners. It lacks the harmonic luxuriance of some of the composer’s more mature vocal works, perhaps, but it is still a sumptuous celebratory setting, elaborately laid out for double choir. Terry’s choir, not long established when Howells delivered this piece, must have been a very capable group to do the work justice. Though the work is celebratory it concludes with rapt alleluias which are a lovely surprise.

Rutter is understandably very fond of English music but he is also an enthusiast for French music. The lovely Hymne à la Vierge of Pierre Villette (track 15) is an adroit choice. Its sinuous melody is supported by subtle, piquant harmonies and the whole piece has a winning fluency and is full of Gallic richness. As Rutter says in his notes, it is redolent of the music of Poulenc and will certainly appeal to anyone who loves the music of that French master. It is, in short, an exquisite miniature and it is beautifully done.

I’m afraid that the one piece on the disc with which I can’t get on is Giles Swayne’s Magnificat (track 16). Dating from 1982, it is apparently based on a Senegalese ploughing song. I initially encountered it when I bought this disc first time round and since then I’ve heard a number of different performances, both recorded and ‘live’ but have never been persuaded by it. I’m sure the fault is mine for it is a vigorous and rhythmically strong piece built from melodic fragments. No doubt many listeners will respond more positively to it than I do. Certainly it could not wish for more committed advocacy than it receives here.

To follow the Swayne the choir treats us to more polyphony, by Byrd and Victoria as well as a little-known but lovely Ave Maria by Holst (track 20). The gorgeous yet simple setting of that same text by Victoria (track 21) with which the recital ends typifies the dedication and musicianship which has been lavished on the contents of this CD.

It would be hard to imagine a lovelier disc. Individual items give great pleasure but the programme has been so planned that it is perhaps best enjoyed by listening straight through, just allowing a few minutes pause between each of the sections. This is an excellent example of what can be achieved by a smallish choir of expert singers under the direction of a first class choral conductor. It is a disc which is even more attractive now that it has been reissued at medium price. It has given me a great deal of pleasure over the last ten years or so and I have no hesitation in recommending it to new listeners and to those who may have missed it first time round.


John Quinn



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