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Lighten our Darkness: Music for the Close of Day, including The Office of Compline
Evening Prayers
John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558) In pace [5:16]; Libera nos, salva nos [3:49]
Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594) Justorum animae [3:06]
Jacob HANDL (1550-1591) Pater noster [4:22]
William MUNDY (c1528-1591) O Lord, the Maker of all thing [2:51]
William BYRD (1543-1623) Visita, quaesumus Domine [5:04]
Josef RHEINBERGER (1839-1901) Abendlied [3:23]
Evening Hymns William BYRD O Christ who art the light and day [4:29]
Louis BOURGEOIS (c1510-1559) O gladsome light [1:54]
Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585) Te lucis ante terminum [2:24]
Motets of the Virgin Mary
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Alma Redemptoris Mater [6:52]; Ave Regina caelorum [3:18]; Regina caeli laetare [3:35]; Salve Regina [10:32]
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599) Ave Maria [5:06]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Bogoroditsye Dyevo (Ave Maria) [2:38]
Two Commendations
William BYRD In manus tuas [3:25]
John SHEPPARD In manus tuas [3:56]
The Office of Compline* [22:42]
John Harte (Reader)/Simon Wall (Precentor)
The Cambridge Singers/John Rutter
rec. The Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, January 2006. DDD
COLLEGIUM COLCD 131 [77:33 + 22:42]
 

 

This new collection in which John Rutter directs his Cambridge Singers finds Rutter back at what I believe is his favourite location for recording a cappella music, the lovely Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. Over the years I’ve bought and enjoyed most of Rutter’s recordings with the Cambridge Singers, including several featuring his own music. However his best recordings of all have been the anthologies of a cappella liturgical music, such as this. This latest example is the finest of them all.

Rutter has had the happy idea of marrying a recital of music for the close of day with a complete Office of Compline. This is such a good idea that I’m surprised no one – to the best of my knowledge - has done it before. It does mean that the album requires two CDs, one of them with a short running time. However, the set is being sold, I believe, at the same price as one full-price CD.

The choral music on the first disc is well chosen and marvellously executed. First we hear a group of seven pieces that are settings of prayers associated with the evening liturgy. John Sheppard’s sublime In pace makes a wonderful opening. It is sung quite beautifully. At once the listener is aware of the choir’s control of line and phrasing and their fine, even tone. These are to be constant features of the performances on this disc. Also one is conscious of the warm but not over-resonant acoustic of Ely’s Lady Chapel. This lovely acoustic is to play an important role in the success of this whole programme.

The Sheppard piece that follows, the slow-moving seven-part Libera nos, salva nos, is just as memorable. In his notes Rutter refers to a description of Sheppard’s music as “a musical counterpart to English Perpendicular architecture”. This particular piece and the fine performance it receives, shows how apt is that description. I also enjoyed very much Jacob Handl’s Pater noster. This is for double choir, placed antiphonally. However, rather unusually one choir comprises high voices (SSAA), while its companion consists of lower voices (TTBB). The separation is effective here. The extended, flowing ‘Amen’, with the music passing back and forth from one choir to the other is particularly to be noted.

Byrd’s Visita, quaesumus Domine, from the 1605 Gradualia, is airily scored for SSAT. This scoring gives the piece, in Rutter’s words, “a texture of magical transparency”. It’s an absolutely gorgeous little gem. The Rheinberger piece may seem to sit a little oddly at the end of this group of sixteenth-century polyphonic pieces. However, the chaste beauty of this seven-part setting more than earns it its place.

The group of three evening hymns that follows includes O gladsome light by Louis Bourgeois. However, this isn’t quite what it seems. It is, in fact, a metrical, rhymed translation, by Robert Bridges, of the original Greek hymn which was included in The English Hymnal of 1906. Rutter suggests that it may have been Vaughan Williams himself who, as editor, married the text to Bourgeois’s psalm-tune.

The crux of the recital is the section devoted to Motets of the Virgin Mary, a section dominated by Victoria’s settings of the four Marian antiphons, which in their plainchant form were sung, according to season, at Compline. All four of these settings are scored for two four-part choirs. In three of the pieces that means two groups of SATB but Regina caeli laetare differs in calling for SSAT and SATB. The motets contrast with each other very nicely. I love the short lilting section at the words ‘Gaude, gaude, gloriosa’ in Ave Regina caelorum and Regina caeli laetare positively skips along – who said Victoria’s music was always austere? The most extended and ambitious of the set is the concluding Salve Regina. The piece is luxuriantly laid out for double choir and the Cambridge Singers perform it quite beautifully. I’m bound to say that the offering by Rachmaninov seems an odd bedfellow in a group otherwise consisting of Iberian polyphony. This lovely piece is always welcome, of course, but I wonder if, to accommodate it, the contents of this group should have been more mixed?

Finally we hear two settings of In manus tuas. The one by Byrd is, again, from the 1605 Gradualia. John Sheppard’s version is even more tranquil and easeful. Since the music harks back to that of the opening In pace, it makes a particularly apposite and satisfying way to end the recital.

The second disc is given over to the Office of Compline as presented in the 1928 revision of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Here one of the tenors of the Cambridge Singers, John Harte, reads the words of the celebrant in the spoken passages of the liturgy while his tenor colleague, Simon Wall, sings the passages allotted to the Precentor. Both discharge their roles commendably. The plainchant passages, such as Psalm 91 and the office hymn, Before the ending of the day, are delivered clearly and in a well-measured manner. Purists might object that the chant should be reserved to the male voices but I have no problem whatsoever with the ladies of the choir taking their part. I like the calm, measured way that the spoken passages are delivered, both by John Harte and by the rest of the singers in response. The whole is a completely believable rendering of a lovely, pacific end-of-day liturgy and the essential simplicity and intimacy of the service is properly conveyed. And, of course, the language is wonderful.

The engineers have captured both the singers and the acoustic of the building most atmospherically. The singing is superb from start to finish, mixing radiance and clarity to perfection. The documentation accompanying the disc includes succinct but informative notes and all the texts with English translations. This is a lovingly performed and deeply satisfying pair of discs that should be self-recommending to all lovers of the music of the English church.

John Quinn

Collegium Records
 

 


 



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