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. 13-14, 16-17 July 2010 Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire UK
NAXOS 8.572653 [64:40]
The steady exploration by Naxos of the main liturgical settings of John Rutter continues here with convincing and well performed versions of his early exciting Gloria and the later large-scale Magnificat together with the 1988 Te Deum. The catalogue is not overburdened with versions of either work but what it might lack in number it makes up for in quality so this new version has to work hard to impress in a competitive marketplace.
The original recordings directed by Rutter using his hand-picked choir The Cambridge Singers on Collegium are still available at mid-price and gosh they still sound good. However the main works are differently coupled so purchasing them would entail buying two discs - the couplings are excellent though. On EMI there is an identical coupling of the two main works from Stephen Cleobury and the choirs of Kings College and Gonville & Caius. This is available at upper mid-price but I have not heard it. So what can this new disc offer aside from a price advantage? To my ear the key elements are two - the recording location; a gloriously resonant St. Albans Cathedral and the sound of these liturgical settings sung by a cathedral choir. St. Albans have embraced - quite rightly to my mind - the use of boys and girls to sing the treble lines although they have not mixed the two groups so the liner lists the St. Albans Abbey Girls Choir separately from the St. Albans Cathedral Choir. Possibly the combining of the boys and girls for this recording has slightly over-balanced the upper lines although the blend of the treble line is excellently achieved. It is only when direct comparison with the Cambridge Singers version is made that the relative imbalance of the lower lines becomes clear - it comes down to a slight lack of weight and impact equally spread across the vocal range. One of Rutter’s great pieces of musical theatre in his Gloria is the deployment of a fanfare brass section to support the organ accompaniment. You have to be a hard-hearted anti-populist not to be thrilled by the sheer exultant power of this writing. The Ensemble DeChorum brass on the Naxos disc are superb throughout - beautifully burnished tone with exhilarating roulades shooting heavenwards like some musical firework display. Perhaps due to the nature of the Abbey acoustic their tone is a fraction mellower than the celebrated Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on the earlier disc. Possibly, just possibly if forced to choose I would opt for the brazen leaping athleticism of the Cambridge disc but this is not to detract a jot from the quality of the new version. This Gloria was commissioned by a mixed voice choir in Mid-West America and so there is a semi-secular origin to this very sacred work. The Cambridge Singers set the bar almost impossibly high with the ideal combination of young adult voices, male and female, achieving a miraculous blend of tone and rhythmic vitality. They seem totally at ease with both the music and genre. In contrast the men of St Albans labour with both the tessitura and the syncopating nature of the music, again this is good but the earlier disc is excellent. Another feature of the Cambridge Singers was the unearthly purity of the solo soprano singing - the young trebles of St. Albans are also excellent but once again - perhaps due to familiarity - I find myself gravitating towards the earlier performance. Here is a perfect example of when timings alone do not tell the whole story; the new recording takes a mere ten seconds more in a seventeen minute work than the earlier one, but the Rutter-conducted disc feels consistently more vibrant.
This is probably the moment to raise the bugbear that so often engages Rutter’s detractors. This piece does repeatedly sound like another composer’s work. Even Rutter, in his own liner-note to the new disc, acknowledges the debt to Walton, Stravinsky and Poulenc. But it is the first of the composers whose shadow falls longest across this work. Extended passages mimic Walton’s writing in his Te Deum and Belshazzar’s Feast. If you can accept this - as I can - then this is a winner of a piece. I do not want to dwell on this aspect of Rutter’s work since it is a well-rehearsed criticism and you know it is an aspect of his compositional character.
Moving onto the Magnificat, this is one of Rutter’s largest sacred works. Here the timing difference between the new performance and the earlier one is more marked; St Albans taking two minutes longer than Cambridge. The external influences expand here to include Bernstein in Chichester Psalms mode. Again that does not bother me although in this instance I do have to say that I’m not as convinced by the piece as a whole: the faster dynamic sections rely too heavily on formulaic use of ostinato rhythms and Rutter fingerprint instrumental colours. Set against this many of the lyrical passages are amongst his finest. The commission again came from America and the first performance was at New York’s Carnegie Hall sung by a 200 strong chorus made up of choir members from all over the US. So once more there is this element of the sacred in a secular setting. Reflecting the grandiosity of the first performance Rutter was allowed to use a full orchestra and soloists to complement the large choir. Here St. Albans perform the version for chamber orchestra and organ that Rutter pragmatically produced for just such smaller occasions. Rutter cites the influences as the Marian festivals of Latin-America as well as Bach. From the latter he takes the precedent of interpolating into the ‘official’ Latin text additional poetic texts - here Of a Rose, a lovely Rose [track 5] and the Antiphon at Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is incorporated into the closing Gloria Patri [track 10].
The very opening of the work shows Rutter’s particular gift for writing melodies that are instantly appealing to the listener and grateful to sing. Again the upper lines are confidently sung with real relish by the young choristers of St. Albans. Ultimately I find this writing just a tad too comfortable and verging on the bland. The accompaniment by the Ensemble DeChorum is very neat and tidy - this really is a chamber ensemble totalling just eight string players, a woodwind quintet plus harp and percussion. Here, and throughout the disc the engineering steers an ideal path between voices and instruments set within the generous acoustic which is always audible but never overwhelming. The biggest gain in this sacred/chamber version is the aforementioned Of a Rose. Something of this setting brings it closer in orbit to a church context and thereby plays to the strengths of a church choir. Elsewhere, probably due to my over familiarity with the ‘mixed’ voices of the Cambridge version, I found the male alto sound less than wholly effective - but suddenly in this movement it seems just right; a church sound for a church text in a church setting. Also, the reduced nature of the accompaniment - beautifully played - adds to the chaste, contemplative nature of the text. But the next movement suffers with the loss of the full orchestral brass - big echoes of the Britten War Requiem here in the brass’ fanfare figurations - and St. Albans take a full minute longer than Cambridge so the urgent supplication of the text is diluted. Both recordings benefit greatly from the presence of ideally pure soprano soloists. Cambridge’s Patricia Forbes is able, by simple fact that she is accompanied by all-female adult sopranos, to move in and out of the choral texture more effortlessly. Again this early recording is miraculously fine as far as choral blend and subtle ebb and flow of the music is concerned. St Alban’s Elizabeth Cragg also possesses a beautiful voice although one that does not sound quite as young as Forbes. That, added to a balance which keeps her ‘in front’ of the choir at all times and the result is a more contrasted performance with the solo and choral sections more clearly defined. Both versions work well although at a push once again I would turn to the earlier interpretation if reluctantly forced to choose. In the second extended soprano solo - Esurientes [track 9] - the benefit of the chamber scoring intimacy comes to the fore again. There’s also gorgeous playing from the Ensemble DeChorum wind players especially Clare Findlater on flute and Lauren Weavers on oboe. Here the music weaves a magical spell of balm and peace - for me the highlight of the entire disc and one of Rutter’s moments of greatest inspiration in any work. Here he treads an ideal path between the populist and the sacred, the simplicity of the setting musically and harmonically adding to its sincerity. The new performance outshines the earlier with the controlled ecstasy of their singing; in contrast for once Cambridge sound a fraction ‘Mike Sammes Singers’ - hopefully readers will get the analogy! - and the excellent City of London Sinfonia are outshone by the new instrumental group. Honours in the closing Fecit Potentiam return to Cambridge by dint of the full brass which give the movement a ceremonial grandeur the organ in St. Albans cannot replicate. The repetition of the opening material gives the work a satisfying cyclical form although the Waltonisms here again feel less impressive than the earlier Gloria.
The disc closes with a short setting of the Te Deum. Written in 1988 Rutter returned to the organ plus brass accompaniment of the Gloria setting from fourteen years earlier. This is a text that has inspired many composers none more so than Walton in his celebrated coronation setting of 1953. Rutter’s setting is good but not especially memorable - the final peroration into a hymn-like unison is effective and it receives another fine outing here. To be honest it makes a good filler for the disc without being a reason in itself to buy it. Again it comes into competition with Cambridge Singers/Rutter performances which in this instance I have not heard so cannot comment.
Mention here of the liner - in addition to a brief but interesting note from the composer, full texts are supplied together with interesting biographies about the soloist and the St. Alban’s choir as well as full listings of the choir and orchestral personnel. On the back of the liner are the acknowledgements of support for the making of the disc. These include the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral as well as a local construction company and supporters of the church and its music. Additionally the composer Thomas Hewitt-Jones assisted - my first violin teacher in Liverpool was Jenny Hewitt-Jones - any relation I wonder? - and the recording was supported by a Mr Neil Baker in memory of his wife Katherine. All of these individuals and organisations can be justly proud of their involvement and what a wonderful and touching living memorial this is too.
As mentioned before, excellent sound from producer/editor/engineer Adam Binks. For my taste the organ is a fraction recessed although this is only truly an issue when that part is required to replace the orchestral brass. Given the complexity of the textures Binks has had to manage I think he has achieved an excellent result. Praise too to conductor/choir master Andrew Lucas. His choristers sing with obvious pleasure, commitment and no little skill - I will return to this version of the Esurientes often. At the bargain price of Naxos I cannot imagine anyone who engages with John Rutter’s music being anything but delighted with this disc. Possibly, just possibly if you are dipping your toe for the first time and can run to the extra cost of a second disc I would steer you towards the original Cambridge Singers performances.
I cannot imagine anyone who engages with John Rutter’s music being anything but delighted with this disc.