Having already forged most productive links with one
excellent Cambridge College choir, that of St. John’s College, Naxos
now team up for the first time (but not the last, I hope) with another
top choir from Cambridge University.
The choir of Clare College has a very special association
with the music of John Rutter. He was a student there in the 1960s and
during his student days his carol compositions came to the attention
of Sir David Willcocks, then Director of Music at King’s College. It
was this interest by Willcocks which led to Rutter’s music being published.
In 1975 Rutter became Director of Music at Clare College and held that
post until 1979 when he left in order to devote more time to composition.
Even after his departure from the College staff he continued to be associated
with his alma mater and several of the shorter pieces included here
were written expressly for them. The association was further cemented
when Rutter was elected an honorary Fellow of Clare College in 2001.
This CD continues this productive relationship for John Rutter is its
The CD also commemorates a more poignant link. In 2000
John Rutter’s son, Christopher, enrolled as a student at Clare College
and, as a Choral Exhibitioner, became a member of his father’s old choir.
Tragically, Christopher was killed in an accident in the following year
and this recording has been dedicated to his memory. To add to the family
connections, the Requiem was written the year after the death
of John Rutter’s father, Christopher’s grandfather, and the composer
inscribed the score In memoriam LFR
A conductor of my acquaintance once rather disparagingly
described Rutter’s Requiem as "poor man’s Fauré."
At the time I disagreed strongly with the statement and today, having
sung in several performances of the piece, I disagree even more. Indeed,
at the time of writing this review the choir of which I am a member
is in the middle of a series of performances of it. Preparing the work,
once again, has increased my admiration for the craftsmanship and eloquence
which it displays in equal measure. Nonetheless, the reference to Fauré
is not inapposite. The two works have quite a good deal in common in
terms of shape and simplicity (or economy) of means. Another common
feature is that both include a beguiling setting of the ‘Pie Jesu’ for
solo soprano (though in Rutter’s work this movement includes some brief
choral interpolations.) I feel sure that Rutter must have drawn some
inspiration from Fauré (and why not?) In 1983,
only two years before composing his own Requiem, Rutter published
a new critical edition of Fauré’s score and while his own setting
is very far from being a pastiche of the French master’s, Fauré’s
work undoubtedly casts a benevolent shadow.
The very good liner notes by composer
Tarik O’Regan also suggest a probable influence of Britten’s War
Requiem. As a chorister at Highgate School John Rutter had taken
part in the celebrated premiere recording of War Requiem in 1963
under the direction of Britten himself: what an experience that must
have been! Rutter follows in the footsteps of Britten by composing a
work which is something of an anthology.
In his War Requiem Britten combined
the Latin Mass texts with poems in English by Wilfred Owen. The words
which Rutter uses, apart from those of the Latin Mass, are also in English,
though he chooses scriptural texts, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,
rather than secular poetry.
As you would expect from this composer,
the quality of the melodic inspiration is consistently high. There are,
for example, particularly memorable themes for the ‘Kyrie eleison’ at
the outset (track 1) and in the simple but effective ‘Pie Jesu’ (track
3) while Rutter reserves one of his most felicitous ideas for the concluding
‘Lux Æterna’ (track 7), a melody to melt the heart. However, there
is drama and toughness too. The lovely melody for the Kyrie is only
attained after some highly charged, mysterious and doom-laden opening
pages. The emotional climax of the work is the ‘Agnus Dei’ (track 5).
This is an intense and dramatic dirge which rises to a shattering climax
before we hear the radiant reassurance of the words, "I am the
Resurrection and the Life". Rutter sets these words with eloquent
simplicity in block chordal passages for the choir accompanied by a
lone flute, recalling a snatch of the plainsong Mass for the Dead. Much
of Requiem falls gratefully on the listener’s ear but is in fact
very demanding to sing, as I know only too well. Suffice to say that
the Clare singers make everything sound very easy and fluent.
Requiem exists in two different,
equally valid orchestral scorings. One version is for a chamber orchestra.
This is the version used on Rutter’s own 1986 recording with his Cambridge
Singers The alternative, of which this is apparently the first recording,
is for organ, flute, oboe, timpani, glockenspiel, harp and cello and
this reduced scoring does impart a particular feeling of intimacy to
It has been fascinating to compare
this new recording with Rutter’s own. Generally speaking, Timothy Brown’s
tempi are just a touch more fleet, urgent even, than those adopted by
the composer as may be seen from the fact that Rutter’s performance
takes 36’36", some two minutes longer than this newcomer. I think
both approaches are valid for Brown’s swifter tempi suit the sparer
textures of the ensemble scoring while the fuller orchestral textures
justify, even demand, a slightly broader touch. On both recordings the
singing is first rate though Rutter’s choir are set back just a little
further in the aural picture than are the Clare choir. There is no lack
of focus in the older recording, at least not to my ears, but the distancing
gives a slight aura to the choral sound which some listeners may prefer
to Naxos’s closer balance. The soloists are excellent on both recordings.
I found there was little to choose between Elin Manahan Thomas and the
two soloists employed by Rutter, Caroline Ashton (in the ‘Pie Jesu’)
and Donna Deam. All three give much pleasure.
There were just a couple of occasions
when I found I definitely preferred one recording to the other. In both
instances the vote went to the older recording and in both cases the
preference concerns Timothy Brown’s choice of tempo relative to the
composer’s. The Sanctus (track 4) is the one extrovert movement in the
work. Here I do feel Brown’s speed is just a little too swift. To my
ears this means that the accompaniment seems rather to trip along whereas
the slightly broader speed adopted by Rutter himself not only means
that the accompaniment sounds like pealing bells but also that the choral
fanfares on the word "Hosanna" have the proper amount of weight.
In the final movement, there is an important passage (track 7, from
1’50") setting the words "they rest from their labours"
which prepares us for the seraphic melody of the "Lux Æterna"
itself. Here again, Rutter is just that tiny bit broader, especially
in the crucial cadences which bridge the two sections, and his approach
works just that bit better, it seems to me, with the result that the
"Lux Æterna" section is more tellingly a moment of subdued
but welcome emotional release.
However, these are minor reservations,
which not all may share, and they do not detract from the overall excellence
of Timothy Brown’s interpretation which is most beautifully realised
by his performers. This account of Requiem is a splendid achievement
and one which must have gratified the composer greatly. The choir are
clearly very familiar with the work and, indeed, on 11 September 2002
they gave a commemorative performance of it, under John Rutter’s own
direction, in New York. That, surely, must have been a highly charged
It was a good idea to include two
of John Rutter’s organ compositions, both of which were new to me. The
exuberant and festive Toccata in 7 (track 13) is great fun (the
title refers to the time signature of 7 / 8). The Variations on an
Easter Theme (track 14) are resourceful and very effective. As they
are written, unusually, for two organists, playing the same instrument,
the piece gives both of Clare College’s excellent Organ Scholars the
chance to join in the fun and they make the most of the opportunity.
The other pieces on the CD are all
most effective and representative of John Rutter’s important contribution
to church music. Most have been recorded before but Arise, shine
(track 8) is new to the catalogue. This is a vivid and dramatic
anthem for Advent. The singers project it powerfully (but with sensitivity
in the quieter episodes) and the same comments apply to Nicholas Rimmer’s
rendition of the important and colourful organ part. There is one small
slip in the otherwise first class liner note. Come down, O Love divine
(track 9) is not, as is claimed, a first recording. It was included
on an excellent Rutter collection for Hyperion (CDA67259) by Polyphony
and Stephen Layton. It is a very fine anthem indeed, featuring some
most atmospheric writing for unaccompanied chorus, and receives a splendid
performance here. In his notes Tarik O’Regan perceptively links this
anthem with another equally fine one, Hymn to the Creator of Light,
written slightly earlier. Both these anthems seem to me to show a new,
visionary side of Rutter, characterised, as O’Regan says, by writing
for dense double chorus and by rich lyricism. He is surely right to
draw attention to stylistic links with the music of Herbert Howells
and Sir William Harris. Both anthems show Rutter employing a much fuller
harmonic palette and to great effect. I’m only sorry that Hymn to
the Creator of Light could not have been included here – there would
have been room on the disc.
Three of the anthems were written
expressly for the Clare choir: Go forth into the world in peace;
Musica Dei donum; and A Clare Benediction. If I had to choose
just one track from this CD to demonstrate why John Rutter’s music has
been so deservedly successful around the world it would be the last
of those three. A Clare Benediction is a setting of a quite beautiful
text by the composer himself. To the sincere and touching words he has
added a serene, flowing melody and the result of this felicitous combination
of words and music falls like a benison on the listener. It would be
a hard heart indeed that did not feel moved by this little jewel. (Personally,
I’d have chosen this item to conclude the disc.) We read in the notes
that during his all-too short time in the Clare choir Christopher Rutter
sang some of his father’s pieces. It would be nice to think that this
was one of them.
Should anyone who already has a
recording of Requiem invest in this newcomer? I’d emphatically
encourage such collectors to do so. The performances are excellent,
as is the recorded sound, and the reduced scoring is well worth hearing
(and many listeners may prefer the increased transparency – not that
the scoring of the orchestral version is exactly thick) Incidentally,
John Rutter’s own recording of the fuller orchestration is now available
at mid-price on his own Collegium label (CSCD 504), generously coupled
with his Magnificat. At the Naxos price collectors can probably
afford to have both this Clare recording and a recording of the
orchestral version on their shelves. For anyone who doesn’t yet know
this lovely Requiem and thinks that John Rutter only writes Christmas
music, this first class disc is a most attractive proposition.
Both the performances and the music
will give great pleasure and satisfaction. More than that, I think the
contents of this disc have the power to move and delight listeners,
surely a precious commodity, especially in these difficult times in
which we live.
This disc is another feather in
the Naxos cap and is very strongly recommended. I note that this is
the second Naxos disc in quick succession to have been made in Cambridge
and to be produced by John Rutter. I hope there will be more such discs
to come. What about a recording of Rutter’s so-far unrecorded Psalmfest?
In the meantime there is a great deal to enjoy here. I can’t believe
anyone investing in this disc will regret it. It is already on my shortlist
of Recordings of the Year.