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John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Mass of the Children (2002) [35:43]
Shadows (1979) [25:06]
Wedding Canticle (2004) [5:55]
Angharad Gruffydd-Jones (soprano)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
Stewart French (guitar)
Daniel Pailthorpe (flute)
James McVinnie (organ)
Farnham Youth Choir
Clare Chamber Ensemble
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown
rec. Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent, 19 July 2005
NAXOS 8.557922 [66:45]


Earlier in 2006 British television viewers may have seen an edition of The South Bank Show, which was devoted to a profile of John Rutter, roughly coinciding with his sixtieth birthday. The programme included some sequences that showed the making of this new recording of his Mass of the Children. The work has been recorded before, in 2003, and that recording, by The Cambridge Singers under the composer’s baton, appeared on Rutter’s own Collegium label (COLCD 129). That release was reviewed by my colleague, Gwyn Parry-Jones (see review).
 
However, the performance recorded for Naxos is different in that it employs a reduced scoring for chamber ensemble and organ as opposed to the original orchestral score. Both versions were made by Rutter himself and, indeed, he is both the producer and engineer for this Naxos disc. This isn’t the first time that Timothy Brown has recorded a Rutter piece adopting the composer’s own reduced scoring. He performed a similar service for Rutter’s Requiem in 2002, a recording that was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2003 (see review).
 
This time I don’t think the results are quite as impressive but that’s because I don’t feel the music is as satisfying.
 
It’s interesting to compare the two recordings. It seems to me that, overall, the singing of Rutter’s own Cambridge Singers is just that bit crisper than that of Brown’s very good choir. The children’s choir used on the composer’s recording demonstrates clearer diction and a brighter sound than the Farnham Youth Choir manage. When it comes to the soloists Rutter has the enormous advantage of Roderick Williams, whose tone strikes me as firmer than that of Jeremy Huw Williams. Honours are more even among the sopranos, with both Angharad Gruffydd-Jones and Joanne Lunn (Rutter) singing most attractively.
 
The music is rather variable in inspiration, I think - and I write as an admirer of John Rutter, whose music I have both sung and listened to many times with great pleasure over the years. The Kyrie is mellifluous and smooth but I don’t find it makes an indelible impression in the way that some of his melodies do. And should not a setting of words seeking divine mercy sound a bit less comfortable? The Gloria is perky in its opening and closing sections. The passage for the soloists in the middle of the movement is more reflective, with an interesting staccato accompaniment. The Sanctus starts innocently but later on parts of it are grander. The Benedictus is definitely one for those with a musical sweet tooth. In the Agnus Dei the setting for children of Blake’s poem, The Lamb, is, I’m afraid, just too precious for its own good. For me, the best music comes in the concluding movement, Dona nobis pacem. Here Rutter gives the baritone soloist a celebrated prayer by Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626), ‘Lord, open thou mine eyes that eye may see’, and sets it to one of his characteristically grateful and memorable melodies - I know Rutter has his detractors but how many of them can write a damn good tune in the way that he can? At this point I have a very clear preference for the singing of Roderick Williams over Jeremy Huw Williams. Roderick Williams is firmer of tone and he phrases easily and naturally. By contrast, his rival seems to try just that bit too hard with the words and the result is that his communication isn’t as direct. The tune is then given to the soprano, carrying words from the fifth century text, St. Patrick’s Breastplate. All this, with the choirs adding their own contributions, makes for a very pleasing end to the work.
 
The Mass is pleasant enough but I don’t believe it’s one of Rutter’s strongest works. I certainly don’t think it’s as effective as Requiem or even his Gloria. I don’t think it represents any advance on his previous music in the way that, say, Hymn to the Creator of Light does.
 
The other choral anthem on the disc is a 2004 offering, Wedding Anthem. This was a charming gift from Rutter to Timothy Brown, who succeeded him as Director of Music at Clare College, to mark his silver jubilee in the post. The accompaniment for flute and guitar is unusual but it enhances the singing and contributes to the light, airy atmosphere of the piece. Unfortunately, my copy had a pressing fault that rendered this track unplayable after 4:18 but by then I’d heard enough to form a judgement on this enjoyable piece and the good performance it receives.
 
The revelation on this disc is Shadows, a 1979 composition and Rutter’s only song cycle. Indeed, I don’t recall hearing any solo songs by him previously. Written to a specific commission for baritone and guitar, it’s an overt homage to the English lute song tradition, this point being reinforced by Rutter’s choice of English poetry from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. This is a fine cycle, in which Rutter’s enviable melodic gift and his responsiveness to words are much in evidence. The first song, from which the cycle takes its name, is very atmospheric and, with its strong melodic line, makes for an impressive opening. The third song, entitled ‘Sonnet’ is a grave nocturne that evokes the world of John Dowland most suggestively. It’s followed by ‘The Epicure’, which is jolly and slightly bawdy. The longest song is the sixth, ‘O death, rock me asleep’, which is dolefully melancholic, but compelling listening. The lively ‘In a goodly night’ trips along lightly enough on the surface but if you listen closely it’s far from straightforward rhythmically. . The celebrated text, ‘Close thine eyes, and sleep secure’ makes a beautiful, dignified close to the cycle.
 
I was most impressed by this cycle, which is beautifully performed by Jeremy Huw Williams, who sings very well and with admirably clear diction - but the texts are supplied, which is good since the lyrics are complex and are best followed. Guitarist Stewart French partners the singer splendidly. I count this cycle a significant discovery and it certainly throws a new light on John Rutter’s music, even if one might have expected such a melodist to write good songs. I just wish he’d write more for the solo voice. My only criticism of the cycle would be that six of the eight songs are in slow or slowish tempi and it might have been preferable to have included one or two more where the pace is a bit livelier.
 
I’m sure this disc will sell well, and I hope it does. Most purchasers will probably be attracted by the Mass but I hope they’ll enjoy Shadows as well. That, for me, is the strongest reason to recommend this disc. 
 
John Quinn
 
see also review by Kevin Sutton


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