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John RUTTER (b.1945)
Mass of the Children (2003) (1-5)
Look at the World (1996) (6)
To every thing there is a season (1997) (7)
Wings of the morning (2002) (8)
A Clare Benediction (1998) (9)
I will sing with the spirit (1994) (10)
Musica Dei donum (1998) (11)
I my best-beloved’s am (2000) (12)
Come down, O Love divine (1998) (13)
Joanne Lunn, soprano, Roderick Williams, baritone
Cantate Youth Choir, The Cambridge Singers
City of London Sinfonia/John Rutter
Rec. Great Hall, University College London (tracks 1-5 and 13), and Henry Wood Hall, London (tracks 6-12), June 2002

I like John Rutter’s music; there, I’ve said it. Only on MusicWeb can you read such shocking revelations. He’s an easy target, and one I refuse to shoot at, because, having performed and conducted his music, I know what his aims are and how successful he is in consistently achieving them; of how many living composers can one say that? Yes, his music is sometimes too smooth and too pretty for its own good. But many, many choristers will testify to how much they have enjoyed singing the music, and what an impact it has had upon their audiences. On the other hand, it can be argued that this music is really not best heard on a recording. A CD entirely of Rutter can leave you feeling as if you’ve just scoffed a whole box of chocolates at one go – i.e. very queasy and with a slightly guilty conscience.

The "Mass of the Children" is his latest large-scale offering to set alongside such works as the ‘Lichfield Canticle’ and the ‘Requiem’, and it arose from the composer’s desire to write something that would allow adult and youth choirs to work together. He’s hardly the first to do this, of course – it’s a trend that goes back well beyond Gustav Mahler – but choral societies will welcome the opportunities it presents.

However, I did find the Mass harder to enjoy than some of his earlier works; since the Requiem, Rutter has tended to give voice to the sweeter, more tranquil side of his nature, eschewing drama or tension. Yes, he can still write a charming melody, and he deploys his forces with total professionalism. But there is a lack of real emotional contrast – negative feelings tend to be hinted at, dark shadows that momentarily pass across the music but never assert themselves strongly. It’s never long before the prevailing calm is re-established.

So there is a little disappointment, though Rutter ‘groupies’ will certainly find heaps to enjoy. The Missa brevis text (i.e without Credo) is interleaved with settings in English, such as the morning and evening prayers from Bishop Thomas Ken's hymns for Winchester College, William Blake’s ‘The Lamb’, and so forth. This last will probably polarise listeners into admirers and detractors of the Rutter style; the former will find it spontaneous, one of those melodies that immediately sounds as if it has always existed; the latter will find it trite, predictable and sickly!

The sequence of anthems that follow tends to confirm the negative view, and it isn’t until we get to the final track, ‘Come down, O Love divine’ of 1998, that the rather more contemporary, not to say experimental, side of Rutter is heard. Written for the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund’s annual St.Cecilia’s Day service, the composer describes it as "..a piece which, I think, speaks with a different voice from any of my others". I would agree; it makes a welcome contrast, and I personally think it was a mistake to stow it away right at the end of the CD. It’s certainly worth hearing.

The performances are highly accomplished. As usual, Rutter has chosen soloists with fresh young voices, and the same goes for the excellent Cambridge Singers – though the blend of voices in the altos is less convincing than in the past. Michael Kibblewhite’s Cantate Youth Choir sing with a bright and open tone that brings the music vividly to life, and makes a refreshing change from the more commonly heard cathedral style of singing. The recording is as good as we’ve come to expect from Collegium, though it does sound very studio-based and squeaky-clean. There is one clumsy piece of editing, too, that makes poor Roderick Williams appear to stammer in his very first entry – "C- Christe eleison".

Nevertheless, a splendid issue of its kind, though the chocolate-box image is rather strengthened by the packaging; the insert reminded me of one of those nasty cheap greetings cards you see inscribed with something along the lines of ‘Love is….’. Not nice at all! Don’t be put off – there is some very fine music-making here.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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