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Stabat Mater dolorosa
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
Track-listing at the foot of this review.
rec. July 2013, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
Latin texts, English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907616 [75:46]

Not long ago I gave a very warm welcome to a splendid disc of music for Advent by Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (review). Now they follow that up with an equally fine disc which focuses on the Christian Church’s other penitential season: Lent. Or, rather, they focus on the climax to Lent: Passiontide and Holy Week.
 
For the Advent programme Graham Ross interspersed the choral items with plainchant, particularly the so-called ‘Great O’ antiphons. Here he’s had an even more imaginative idea. The programme includes the Medieval Latin poem, Stabat Mater dolorosa, all the verses of which are sung, mainly using plainchant. These verses are surrounded by choral pieces which are intended to complement as much as possible the relevant verses of the poem. Only two verses are not chanted: these are verses that Ross himself set in his piece Ut tecum lugeam. The plainchant is well delivered and, shrewdly, Ross varies the sections of the choir which sing each segment, thereby adding variety.
 
As for the choral music, it’s all been chosen with perception and discrimination: there are some wonderful pieces here. I hope I won’t be thought parochial if I say that at the heart of the programme is the setting of the Good Friday Reproaches which John Sanders wrote in 1984 for Gloucester Cathedral, where he was Director of Music between 1967 and 1994. The setting, which is still sung at the cathedral, I believe, is extraordinarily intense – it certainly is in this performance. Sanders alternates plainchant for the verses with choral responses which often contain searching harmonies. I find it hard to believe that the music has ever been better sung than in this searing performance by the Clare choir, which I found very moving.
 
There’s a good deal of Renaissance polyphony in their programme and all of it is done extremely well. Victoria’s O vos omnes is sung with what I’d call poised ardour while the Lassus piece that follows is fervent in tone with Ross ensuring that his singers are alive to the composer’s sensitive word-painting. The Gesualdo piece is one of the Tenebrae responses for Good Friday. His strange, unpredictable harmonies are both unsettling and advanced for their time and one can understand why Stravinsky was attracted to Gesualdo’s music. There’s also a generous helping of music by Byrd and Tallis, which is always welcome. The choir sing all the music by these Tudor masters expertly. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus is a little gem. It’s a deceptively simple four-part setting yet Byrd says so much and delves so deeply despite the modest proportions of the piece. It’s great to hear such a lovely and expertly blended performance as this one.
 
The nineteenth century is represented by Bruckner and Stainer – composers who were poles apart. Stainer’s Crucifixion is often denigrated these days – unfairly, in my view. God so loved the world rightly flourishes as a stand-alone anthem and a fine performance such as this present one reveals its qualities. Wisely, Graham Ross keeps the music moving forward; the worst way to sing it is to allow any trace of Victorian sentimentality but that’s avoided here. Bruckner’s superb motet Christus factus est is splendidly done. Ross ensures that his choir makes the most of the wide dynamic range – to thrilling effect – and he uses the general pauses to fine dramatic effect.
 
Ross himself features twice as composer. His Precor te, Domine was commissioned expressly to complement Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. I’ve often found that modern and pre-Classical music can complement each other very well and though I’ve not been able to listen to the Buxtehude piece in conjunction with the Ross in compiling this review this may be another instance. Ross’s music is graphic and dramatic. Purely as a matter of personal taste I find it rather acerbic but there’s no denying the power of the writing – or the commitment with which it’s delivered here. His Ut tecum lugeam sets two stanzas of the Stabat Mater. This is very spare music, especially in the first stanza, and the harmonic language is very tense; it’s an effective piece.
 
After so much sorrowful and highly-charged reflection it was a good idea to end the programme with Duruflé’s serenely beautiful Ubi caritas, a setting of words associated with the ceremony of the Washing of Feet on Maundy Thursday. This flowing performance applies a touch of balm.
 
This is an outstanding disc. For one thing, it’s a triumph of thoughtful and imaginative programme planning. The singing of the Clare College choir is superb from start to finish. The blend and tuning are immaculate, as is the control, and these young singers sing with finesse and commitment. Graham Ross has clearly trained them expertly and knows exactly how to get the best out of them. Producer/engineer John Rutter has recorded them quite beautifully. The booklet is as pleasing as everything else about this disc.
 
John Quinn
 
Track-Listing
 
Plainchant Stabat Mater dolorosa [0:41]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) O vos omnes [4:15]
Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594) Tristis est anima mea [3:54]
Plainchant O quam tristis et afflicta [0:37]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585) In ieiunio et afflicta [4:00]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901) God so loved the world [3:35]
Plainchant Quis est homo qui non fleret [0:37]
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613) Caligaverunt oculi mei [6:26]
Graham ROSS (b. 1985) Ut tecum lugeam (2010) [2:56]
Plainchant Pro peccatis suae gentis [0:41]
John SANDERS (1933-2003) The Reproaches (1984) [10:43]
Plainchant Eia, Mater, fons amoris [0:35]
Antonio LOTTI (1667-1740) Crucifixus a 8 [2:57]
Plainchant Sancta Mater, istud agas [[0:38]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Er nahm alles wohl in acht [1:00]
William BYRD (c. 1540-1623) Ave verum corpus [4:13]
Plainchant Fac me tecum pie flere [0@38]
Thomas TALLIS Salvator Mundi I [2:03]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Christus factus est [4:58]
Plainchant Virgo virginum praeclara [0:39]
William BYRD Ne irascaris; Civitas sancti tui [9:03]
Plainchant Fac me plagis vulnerari [0:35]
Graham ROSS Precor te, Domine (2007) [7:47]
Plainchant Christe, cum sit hinc exire [0:46]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) Ubi caritas [2:22]
 


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