Ascendit Deus - Music for Ascensiontide and Pentecost
Full track-listing at the foot of this review
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
Peter Harrison, Matthew Jorysz (organ)
rec. April, June, July, 2014, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans; Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent; All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London.
Texts and English, French and German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907623 [77:31]
It looks as if Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College have been working their way through the liturgical year, illustrating each segment of the annual cycle with appropriate music. We’ve already had excellent albums for Advent (review), Christmas (review) and Passiontide (review). Now here is a sequence of pieces for Ascensiontide and Pentecost.
There’s some daring programming here. Indeed, while all the previous albums have included a good sprinkling of contemporary pieces this one, I fancy, presents the most adventurous programming so far. With the best will in the world I have to say that, purely as a matter of personal taste, I don’t find the contemporary pieces are uniformly successful.
Brett Dean’s Was it a voice? was written for this choir and sets a text by the Australian poet, Graeme William Ellis (b. 1944). We read in Graham Ross’s note that Dean sought to express “something of humility and restraint” in this Ascension setting and it’s true that the music eschews conventional jubilation. I found the music long on vocal effects and short on anything memorable. I’m afraid it didn’t do anything for me – for one thing it’s too long for its material – and I can only hope that others will find more in it than I did. I’m sorry to say that the recent piece by Graham Ross himself, which was not written for Clare College, is another item to which I don’t warm. It’s a setting of various words from the Gospel of St John for a cappella choir with an independent part for soprano saxophone. I’m not entirely what the saxophone is meant to represent but its piercing, wailing tone and the music which it plays is distinctly unappealing. Part way through the piece a quartet of voices is heard singing a slightly modified version of If ye love me by Thomas Tallis and against this the main choir sings a Latin translation of part of the same text. As the music winds down, we are told, it becomes apparent that much of the saxophonist’s material has been derived from the Tallis though I found this hard to discern. The piece seems to me to be a collision between old and new music and, frankly, I’m baffled by it.
An infinitely more successful re-imagining of old music is to be found in Come, Holy Ghost by the late Jonathan Harvey. This piece is founded on plainsong around which is woven amazingly inventive and luminous choral textures. In one passage there is what seems like a vividly imagined and effective musical allusion to the Disciples talking in tongues. It’s a highly original composition and here it receives a tremendous performance. Judith Weir’s Ascending into heaven (1983) is equally intriguing. Through her vocal writing and the important independent organ part Weir illustrates both the mystery and the elemental power of the Ascension. Especially effective is the way that the music spirals upwards almost to nothing at the very end.
Nico Muhly’s setting of George Herbert’s well-known text, Let all the world in every corner sing is most unusual. Not the least of its surprises is the inclusion of an important cello part along with the organ and choir. The music is intriguing and Muhly eschews conventional rejoicing. God is gone up is the last piece that Giles Swayne wrote during his time as Composer in Residence at Clare. It couldn’t be more different from the familiar Finzi setting, not least because an entirely different text is used. The piece proceeds from a very dramatic opening. Swayne, it seems to me, views the Ascension as a frightening departure from earthly life by Christ and a departure, moreover, that fills the Disciples with incomprehension. As the piece unfolds it eventually achieves a mood of what I can only call brazen rejoicing. It’s a very strange, almost graphic piece but it certainly has impact.
So too does Finzi’s well-known anthem which at least shares a title with Swayne’s offering though the music is vastly different. As with the Swayne the impact is immediate through the arresting organ fanfares. The piece is one of Finzi’s best choral works and it gets a tremendous performance here. Patrick Gowers’ Viri Galilaei (1987) is not yet as well-known as the Finzi, though it seems to have been gaining much more attention in recent years, and rightly so. The music starts and ends in mystery but in between it’s tremendously exciting. Towards the end Gowers folds into his setting a verse from a great Ascension hymn, See the Conqueror mounts in triumph with an exuberant organ part underneath the choral writing. The piece was written for double chorus and organ – requiring two organists, I think – but here it’s given in an arrangement by Graham Ross which adds brass and percussion parts to marvellous effect, making this terrific piece even more effective. It’s highly appropriate that this piece should be included since Gowers was an alumnus of Clare College. I presume the booklet went to press before Gowers’ death in the closing days of 2014 was announced.
Equally resplendent through the use of organ, brass and percussion is Vaughan Williams’s O clap your hands. On a smaller scale in terms of the forces required are Stanford’s Coelos ascendit hodie and the Credo from Frank Martin’s Mass. Both are scored for double choir. The Stanford is a jubilant, resolute piece and in this excellent performance I like very much the way in which the separation of the two choirs is clearly but naturally conveyed. That’s the case too in Frank Martin’s masterly piece which is given a very committed and expert performance. I particularly relished the joyful “pealing bells” effect of the singing at ‘Et resurrexit’.
This is another very fine and varied album from Clare College. The singing is consistently superb in every respect throughout a demanding programme. I noticed with interest that the choir seems to have very few altos at present – the forces are 10/4/6/9 – but there’s no lack of definition in any of the parts and the choir seems to be very well balanced at all times.
John Rutter is again the engineer and producer for a recording by his old college choir and he’s done a first rate job, working in three different acoustics.
Peter PHILIPS (c 1560-1638) Ascendit Deus
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) O clap your hands
Patrick GOWERS (1936-2014) Viri Galilaei*
Brett DEAN (b. 1936) Was it a voice?* (Music for Ascension Day)
Nico MUHLY (b. 1981) Let all the world in every corner sing*
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) God is gone up
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Coelos ascendit hodie
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974) Credo from Messe
Graham ROSS (b. 1985) Ascendo ad Patrem meum*
Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Ascending into heaven
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012) Come, Holy Ghost
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Pinsesalme
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Giles SWAYNE (b. 1946) God is gone up* (A Song for the Ascension)
* world premičre recordings
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