Timothy HAMILTON (b. 1973)
Salvator Mundi; Angele Dei; Ave verum; In remembrance; The Lord is my shepherd; Crucifixus; The Lord's prayer; The evening hymn; O sacrum convivium; Panis angelicus
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Beati quorum via
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856), arr. Timothy Hamilton Oh holy Night
Timothy HAMILTON Star of Bethlehem
Elisabeth Meister (soprano)
Cantoribus/Timothy Hamilton
rec. September and October 2013, Royal College of Music, London
Texts and English translations included
STONE RECORDS 5060192780406 [44:40]
Cantoribus is a group of singers founded by Timothy Hamilton. I don't know how fluid is the membership but on this recording we hear a group comprising 4 sopranos, 5 mezzos, 4 tenors and 6 basses. Hamilton's musical background began as a cathedral chorister but more recently he has been involved in opera and relishing the way that - to paraphrase his booklet notes - opera unleashes the physical and emotional power of the human voice. This led him to found Cantoribus. All the members of the group are opera singers who are also involved in the London "church circuit". As Cantoribus their aim is to bring to the choral repertoire the vocal amplitude that is second nature to them when singing on the operatic stage.

As will be seen from the track-listing most of the pieces have been written by Hamilton himself - I don't know if they were penned specifically for performance by Cantoribus. His pieces are accessible and communicative. However, whilst the desire to showcase his music is entirely understandable I regret that Stanford's gorgeous Beati quorum via is the sole representative of the English Choral Tradition on this disc. I would have welcomed the opportunity to hear more of the standard choral repertoire performed by this group and since the playing time of the disc is pretty parsimonious there would have been plenty of room for some more music.

As befits their operatic pedigrees the members of Cantoribus produce a very rich, full sound. Hamilton's music gives the singers many opportunities to sing out and, no doubt encouraged by their conductor, they do just that on several occasions though there is sensitive singing to admire also. The group is far from reticent in the use of vibrato but the balance of the ensemble is good. The open-throated style is immediately apparent in the first piece, Salvator Mundi and it's especially noticeable how urgent is Hamilton's music for the words 'Te deprecamur, Deus noster' ('We beseech You, our God') towards the end. These words aren't uttered as a humble prayer but, rather, as an impassioned supplication though the music then subsides to achieve a subdued conclusion. It's very effective.

Equally urgent at times is Hamilton's setting of Ave verum. He doesn't adopt the reverential, subdued approach that one has heard from several other composers. Instead we have a full-on expression of praise - a style which is fully vindicated by the words. Notice how full-throated is the tenor line at 'Cujus latus perforatum', followed by an outpouring of generous soprano tone. It may not be what one is used to hearing in a setting of Ave verum but it's a completely valid approach.

I must admit that not all the music seems to work as well though others may not share my view. In remembrance is a setting of words by Hamilton himself in honour of those who have fallen in war. This is one of two pieces on the disc to feature a guest soloist, the prominent young operatic soprano, Elisabeth Meister. The trouble is that the choral textures behind the soprano solo are very busy, or at least they are when sung in the very full, vibrato-rich Cantoribus style, which increases the prominence of those textures. Furthermore the forthright tone of the music seems rather at odds with the sentiment of the words, though the more restrained ending is good. While I'm in curmudgeonly mood I suppose I should say that the other piece which really doesn't work for me is Hamilton's arrangement of Oh holy Night. He describes his arrangement as "epic". It's written for eight-part choir and solo soprano - Miss Meister again. I'm afraid that the part-writing seems vastly overdone and Adam's melody is almost completely overwhelmed, despite the best efforts of the soloist.

On the other hand the very dramatic setting of Crucifixus, the music - and the performers - making very effective use of dynamic contrasts. There's some very powerful singing here and it's fully justified. Also successful is The evening hymn ('Te lucis ante terminum'). Given Hamilton's penchant for the dramatic in music I wondered if this setting might be similar to the grandeur of Balfour Gardiner's superb work but instead the response to the words is mostly restrained and thoughtful in tone. It's a good piece.

There's quite a lot of rich harmonic texture in Timothy Hamilton's music on this disc but he adopts a simpler style for the closing piece, Star of Bethlehem. As its title suggests it's a Christmas piece, setting his own words. The music is appealing and tranquil and I could easily see this being a 'hit' with other choirs.

Stanford's jewel of a piece is included, we are told in the notes, as 'an affectionate 'nod' back to a wonderful era in choral music'. This performance, which is technically excellent, is very different from the sound we are accustomed to hearing from British choirs that are either an active part of the English Choral Tradition or whose members were reared in that tradition. It's more full-toned and vibrato-rich. Initially it's a bit of a shock to the system for someone who, like me, is so accustomed to hearing what I might term 'traditional' cathedral-style performances but I'd urge people to listen to this with open ears; I found it very interesting. As I said earlier, I wish Timothy Hamilton had included more items such as this in his programme. While I was listening to Crucifixus I found myself wondering what a Cantoribus performance of one or two Bruckner motets would sound like - Christus factus est springs to mind. Equally, I'd like to hear what they'd make of Brahms' Warum ist das Licht gegeben? Perhaps that's something for another time?

I suppose that what Timothy Hamilton and his singers are doing here is giving us a reminder of the Italianate style of singing church music. That is a style to which many English listeners may be unaccustomed but it's an important part of the European choral tradition.

The sound on this disc is good. The group has been recorded in what the session photos in the booklet suggest is a relatively small room in the Royal College of Music. That has the benefit of imparting clarity but I wonder if the slightly more resonant acoustic of a church would have brought even more pleasing results.

Cantoribus offers a novel approach to small ensemble singing but, despite the ungenerous playing time of this disc, it's one that is worthwhile to experience.

John Quinn

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