John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Gloria (1974) [17:21]
Magnificat (1990) [39:15]
Te Deum (1988) [7:54]
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano); Tom Winpenny (organ)
The Choirs of St Albans Cathedral
Ensemble DeChorum/Andrew Lucas
rec. Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK, 13-14 July, 2010 (Magnificat) and 16-17 July, 2010 (Gloria and Te Deum). DDD
NAXOS 8.572653 [64:40]
This recording has been warmly received on Musicweb by Nick Barnard (in CD form) and Brian Wilson (download). Naxos already have in their catalogue excellent versions of Rutter’s Mass of the Children (review) and his beautiful Requiem (review). Now they add this collection of significant choral works. Competition is fierce in the shape of the composer’s own recordings of the Gloria and of the Magnificat - he’s also recorded the Te Deum on a disc of his shorter choral works. In addition there’s a very fine Hyperion disc by Polyphony and Stephen Layton, which includes the Gloria. However, this newcomer can more than hold up its head in this company. It also enjoys a point of differentiation over both the Rutter and Layton recordings, both of which use mixed adult choirs whereas this Naxos CD allows us to hear boy and girl trebles as well as male altos; that gives a nice edge to the choral sound.
The composer himself has written the booklet note and it’s a good one - he writes here at slightly greater length than he usually does for his own Collegium label. Writing of the Gloria he makes a very interesting point. The piece was Rutter’s first major overseas commission and the call came from an American choral director, the late Mel Olson. Mr Olson was very specific in his commissioning requirements and even came over to meet Rutter in the UK to discuss the proposed piece. Rutter is generous in talking of Olson’s contribution not just to the creative process around this work but also in a way that clearly influenced Rutter’s future output: “Much of the credit must go to Mel Olson … because, in telling me what he was looking for in a new choral work, he was telling me what thousands of other choral directors were looking for too.”
That seems to me to make two key points about John Rutter’s music and about the success that it’s enjoyed over the years. Firstly, he writes music that people want to perform and to hear. Secondly, his music, though enjoyable to perform is not always as easy as it sounds: it challenges the performers without putting insuperable obstacles in their path. I sang in the Gloria some years ago: it was great fun and highly effective but it also contains several traps for the unwary, especially in the third movement. Likewise the opening pages of the Requiem are testing. And only recently I spoke with a friend of mine who has several decades of choral experience, including a stint in the Ambrosian Singers. He related that the choir with which he currently sings, which is directed by one of the UK’s well-known chorus masters, had just performed the Magnificat and he admitted that they had found some passages very tricky. So while John Rutter’s music may be engaging it should never be underestimated.
The present performances are splendidly assured and delivered with great enthusiasm. The Gloria and Te Deum are both scored for SATB chorus with brass, percussion and organ. The outer sections of the three-movement Gloria are really exciting here and in the final movement the quirky fugue (‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’) is tossed off with panache. The more reflective central movement features some well-taken treble and alto solos. In the lively outer movements the accompaniment is sharp and punchy, as it should be.
The Magnificat - another American commission - is a more substantial piece, laid out in seven movements and Rutter incorporates some other, very relevant words into the text of the canticle itself. Much of the music is buoyant and festive and all those parts are well done. However, there’s more powerful music to be found in the third movement, ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’, where the singers deliver the choral fanfares strongly. And in the fifth section, ‘Fecit potentiam’, the jazzy, slightly menacing rhythms are brought off very well. There’s an important part for a soprano soloist and Elizabeth Cragg offers some pleasing singing. Some may feel that her vibrato is a little on the rich side but she sings expressively.
This disc contains highly enjoyable music and it sounds as if the performers were relishing the experience. Whilst the other recordings, mentioned above, are by no means displaced Andrew Lucas and his admirable St Alban’s forces offer a very valid alternative and at the Naxos price it deserves to be snapped up by a lot of collectors.
An excellent disc of Rutter choral works that more than holds its own in a competitive field.