Out Of Darkness - Music from Lent to Trinity
The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge/Mark Williams;
Benjamin Morris, Bertie Baigent (organ)
rec. 2014, Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge
Texts and English translations included
Full track-listing at the foot of this review
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD409 [75:45]
Not long ago I was impressed by an earlier disc from Mark Williams and the Choirs of Jesus College Cambridge: War and Peace - Music for Remembrance (review). This latest album consists of music appropriate to the liturgical seasons between Lent and Trinity and it complements a previous release, Journey into Light which covered the time between Advent and Candlemas. I’ve not heard that disc but it was favourably received by David R Dunsmore (review).
It’s worth pointing out that the College has no fewer than three choirs, all of which take part here. There’s the Chapel Choir, which comprises boys and men; there’s the College Choir, an SATB ensemble, which shares with the Chapel Choir the responsibility of singing for the services in the chapel each week. In addition all the singers come together from time to time as The Combined Choir for concert, recording and touring activities.
This new album was recorded under emotional and testing conditions. The very day before the sessions were due to begin the musicians received the shocking news that the Dean of the College Chapel, Rev. Dr. John Hughes had died as the result of a car accident; he was only 35 years old. Dr Hughes was evidently a much-loved figure in the College but, bravely, the choir members were emphatic that the recording should go ahead. The disc is dedicated to the memory of Dr Hughes. I mention this not in any way as special pleading – that’s emphatically not needed – but because I don’t think I was being fanciful in detecting an extra degree of intensity in some of the singing here, especially in the Lenten and Passiontide music. I share the admiration of Mark Williams, expressed in the booklet, for the courage and determination shown by his young musicians in determining that ‘the show must go on’.
The programme has been discerningly chosen and the standard of performance is set down at once with an excellent account of Byrd’s Cunctis diebus. Here the College Choir achieves a good internal balance, sustains the polyphonic lines intelligently and sings the penitential text with no little feeling. The other Lenten piece, the Purcell, is entrusted to the Combined Choir and comes off well.
Passiontide is represented firstly by Bairstow’s The Lamentation. In essence the piece consists of Anglican psalm chants interspersed with a plaintive refrain, which is more or less how the composer himself described it rather self-deprecatingly. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and despite the self-imposed “constraint” of writing in Anglican chant Bairstow produced an eloquent piece with a refrain that is most affecting. Affecting too is this fine Jesus College performance which is distinguished, for one thing, by excellent attention to dynamics. Also for Passiontide is a piece that was completely new to me by a composer who I’ve not encountered before. The Belgian, Fernand Laloux (1901-1970) came to Britain in 1914, presumably as a war refugee. He never returned to his homeland and instead carved out a career as an organist and music teacher in his adopted country. Rather remarkably, he continued to play the organ even after he lost a leg while on active service in World War II. His Tantum ergo for SATB choir is gentle, fluent and chaste in tone with a definite French accent discernible in the harmonies. It’s an unassuming piece but quite disarming and I’m delighted to have discovered it.
The programme’s celebration of Easter commences with Stanford’s Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem. What a splendid piece this is. My only slight reservation about this excellent performance is to wonder if Mark Williams takes it just a tiny fraction too quickly; the quavers sound a little bit pressed. I gather from the notes that we have the late David Trendall to thank for the rediscovery and publication of Surrexit pastor bonus by the French composer, Jean L’Héritier (1480-1551). We should be grateful to Trendall because this six-part piece is far too good to lose. The Jesus College performance is a nice light and airy one.
I take very mild issue with the decision to treat the pieces by Langlais and MacMillan as Ascension pieces. The MacMillan is one of his Strathclyde Motets and it’s a setting of the Communion Prayer said at Mass in the Roman Rite on the Feast of Christ the King. That feast is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on the last Sunday in the liturgical year – in other words on the Sunday immediately preceding Advent. So this has nothing to do with the Feast of the Ascension though I grant that the words are not inappropriate. Similarly, I don’t think Langlais wrote his stunning organ solo with the Ascension in mind. The plainchant melodies on which he based it are firstly the invocation ‘Lumen Christi’, which is associated with the Easter Vigil service and secondly a chant which, if memory serves, is used for the Litany of the Saints. That quibble is rather trumped, however, by the superb way in which Benjamin Morris, the Senior Organ Scholar, delivers this arresting piece.
The next four pieces are concerned with Pentecost. It’s good that Peter Hurford’s Litany to the Holy Spirit has been included for this distinguished organist was an undergraduate of Jesus College in the late 1940s and is now an Honorary Fellow. The trebles of the Chapel Choir sing his Litany very nicely. I’m glad also to find a piece by Ned Rorem included. He’s a very fine composer whose music doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. He has written some noteworthy choral music and his subtle, refined Breathe on me, breath of God is an excellent example. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me is the opening section of Elgar’s oratorio, The Apostles. It works very well as a separate anthem and when the accompaniment is as imaginatively voiced on the organ as is here the case one doesn’t miss the orchestra as much as might be thought. Benjamin Morris establishes a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere at the start and the Combined Choir sings very well indeed.
Finally, Trinity is represented by the final two items on the programme. The Sheppard anthem is expertly paced by Mark Williams and he gets refined singing from the College Choir. As a matter of personal taste I wish something a bit more interesting than Stainer’s I Saw the Lord had been chosen for the last item, well though it’s performed. The opening section is quite vivid but then in the second section – ‘O Trinity! O Unity!’ - Stainer lapses into Victorian convention and the piece rather runs out of steam.
This is a fine recital, which has been planned discerningly and performed with great skill and commitment. The recording, produced by Chris Hazell and engineered by Mike Hatch, is very good, not least in balancing the singers against the organ in a very satisfactory way. Philip Borg-Wheeler’s notes are interesting and informative. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the difficult circumstances under which it was made the musicians of Jesus College have produced a fine CD which is a fitting memorial to their Chapel Dean.
William BYRD Cunctis diebus
Henry PURCELL Remember not, Lord, our offences. Z 50
Sir Edward BAIRSTOW The Lamentation
Fernand LALOUX Tantum ergo
Pablo CASALS O vos omnes
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem
Jean L'HÉRITIER Surrexit pastor bonus
Benjamin BRITTEN Festival Te Deum, Op. 32
Jean LANGLAIS Incantation pour un jour Saint
James MACMILLAN Sedebit dominus rex
Peter HURFORD Litany to the Holy Spirit
Thomas TALLIS If ye love me
Grayston IVES Listen sweet dove
Ned ROREM Breathe on me, breath of God
Sir Edward ELGAR The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
John SHEPPARD Libera nos I
Sir John STAINER I Saw the Lord