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Ascendit DeusMusic for Ascensiontide and Pentecost
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
Peter Harrison, Matthew Jorysz (organ)
rec. 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]

More due to the way the cards fell rather than any deliberate planning, it was Ascension Day when I listened to this disc. I can think of few more uplifting ways to mark the feast. Graham Ross and the Clare College Choir seem to be making a series of recordings which showcase traditional and contemporary music for the great feasts of the church year, and this is every bit as fine as the others.

It hardly needs saying that the performances are first rate in themselves. Under Ross, the Clare College Choir have continued from strength to strength, their sound clear, forthright and bright, without sounding particularly “churchy”. Instead they present this music clearly and intelligently on its own terms, and their regular instrumental collaborators, the Dmitri Ensemble, do a good job of support.

The Philips is a great choice to start with - almost a declaration of intent. It's clean, bright, forward-focused and brilliantly accurate without losing humanity. Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands is also brilliantly celebratory, the brass and organ offsetting the choir to create a picture of general jubilation. Finzi's God is gone up is majestic and stirring, while Standord's Coelos ascendit hodie has all the bounce and energy of a carol. Martin's Credo seems a slightly less justifiable inclusion on the disc, but it's every bit as well sung, with excellent articulation and enunciation. Grieg's Whitsun hymn is as warm and welcoming as a blanket on a winter's evening. Elgar's Spirit of the Lord is sung with the self-confidence that its Edwardian audiences would have recognised, but still enjoys its fair share of subtlety and sensitivity.

Typically, however, there is plenty of contemporary music on offer here, some of it in world premiere recordings. Gowers' Viri Galilaei is by turns ethereal and celebratory, with a high, angular organ part that leavens the texture beautifully. Brett Dean's Was it a voice? sets a new poem contemplating the majesty of Christ, while Nico Muhly's setting of Let All the World is broadly meditative, with a magical part for the cello. Ross's own Ascendo ad Patrem meum sets several of Christ's own words about the completion of his work. It features an obbligato saxophone part that can be variously meditative and prickly. The often angular setting of the Latin text encases a slow, beautiful performance of Tallis's If ye love me, and the juxtaposition is actually disarmingly effective. The Tallis emerges from and retreats into the modern texture in a way that is surprising but also quite wonderful. Jonathan Harvey's Come, Holy Ghost has a similar (very beautiful) working method, while juxtaposition of a very different kind comes in Judith Weir's Ascending into Heaven, which sets a twelfth-century Latin text to upwardly moving rhythms and harmonies. I liked this very much.

Giles Swayne's God is Gone Up is a large-scale, dramatic construction to finish the whole disc.  It traces the reaction of the disciples from astonishment at the ascension through their fear and nervousness, to their recovery of confidence and a final, jubilant Alleluia. It's cleverly constructed and leads the listener through the disciples' emotions so as to share them. It's very involving and, if the musical language is a little unwelcoming at times, it still packs a powerful punch, especially in the way it integrates the organ's mimicking of the Shofar.

Another great success, then, and another well done to all involved.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

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 première recordings