Requiem: Music for All Saints & All Souls Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) O quam gloriosa [2:25] Sir Ernest BULLOCK (1890-1979) Give us the wings of faith [2:44] Richard DERING (c. 1580-1630) Factum est silentium [3:26] Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Give me the wings of faith [5:30] Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Justorum animae [2:50] Edgar BAINTON (1880-1954) And I saw a new heaven [5:16] William BYRD (1543-1623) Justorum animae [2:36] Alonso LOBO (1555-1617) Versa est in luctum [4:34] Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) [47:33]
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross; Peter Harrison and Matthew Jorysz (organ)
rec. 17 February 2014, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire UK; 20 and 22 March 2014, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London
Texts and English, French, German translations included HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907617 [77:30]
This is the fifth album from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, each of which has consisted of music appropriate to a particular season in the church’s year. Most recently they gave us a programme of music for Ascensiontide (review) and prior to that they had covered Passiontide (review), Christmas (review) and Advent (review).
In the Western Christian churches the feasts of All Saints (also known as All Hallows) and All Souls are celebrated on consecutive days, on 1 and 2 November. So it’s entirely fitting that the first seven pieces on Graham Ross’s programme should be concerned with the first of these two festivals followed by music appropriate for All Souls.
I like the fact that in this programme he offers us two pairs of settings of the same text. Actually, that statement isn’t quite accurate because in Give us the wings of faith Ernest Bullock sets three stanzas of the poem by Isaac Watts whereas Kenneth Leighton sets all five. Bullock’s piece is concise and appealing; it deserves its popularity among choirs. Leighton’s setting is made of sterner stuff – though it’s no less deserving of popularity. The musical idiom may be rather tougher than Bullock’s romantic style but Leighton, as so often in his church music, presents us with a resourceful and expressive piece. The important soprano and bass solos are well taken by members of the Clare choir. A very fine performance is crowned by the choir’s delivery of the majestic unison last verse in which Peter Harrison’s organ playing is as exciting as the singing.
Edgar Bainton composed music in many genres, including symphonies and operas, yet probably
his best-known piece is a short anthem: And I saw a new heaven. This splendid setting of lines from the Book of Revelation is given a performance of great conviction here and I especially admired the fine poise with which the lovely closing pages are sung.
Bainton was a pupil of Stanford whose beautiful motet, Justorum animae receives a very refined performance. It was a very good idea not just to include William Byrd’s setting of the same text but also to place it in the position it occupies on this programme. Though it’s not the only piece of Renaissance polyphony in the All Saints section of the programme this serene piece seems to me to offer an ideal musical bridge to the music by Lobo and Victoria which has been selected for the All Souls element of the programme. The Clare performance of Byrd’s piece is beautifully balanced.
The centrepiece of the programme is Victoria’s sublime setting of the Officium Defunctorum. It’s commonly referred to as his Requiem – as I will term it here, simply for ease of reference - though there is more to the setting than just the Mass for the Dead. We are not short of excellent recordings of this score. Versions by The Tallis Scholars (review) or Tenebrae (review) come immediately to mind and there are several other versions which I have not heard. Lobo’s funeral motet, Versa est in luctum is an ideal prelude and it’s interesting to note that Nigel Short and Tenebrae also use it in this way.
The recordings of Victoria’s Requiem by The Tallis Scholars and by Tenebrae differ in a number of ways from each other and from the Clare College version. One difference lies in the size of the respective choirs. Clare’s choir numbers 30 singers (10/4/7/9). There were 20 voices involved in the Tenebrae recording (8/3/6/3). It’s not clear how many singers took part in the recording by The Tallis Scholars. However, Victoria scored the work in six parts (SSATTB) and since Peter Phillips usually employs two voices to a part I presume he had 12 singers at his disposal on this occasion. So the Clare choir is the largest of the three groups but I should say straightaway that there’s no sense that the ensemble is too large or in any way unwieldy when compared with their rivals.
There are some textural differences too. One is that the Clare and Tenebrae recordings begin with Victoria’s setting of the Second Lesson of Matins, Taedet animam meam. Peter Phillips omits this piece on the grounds that its style is very different from the rest of the Requiem. That’s certainly true and the music is further “at odds” with the rest of the work because it’s in only four parts. Phillips treats the motet Versa est in luctum as a postlude while Graham Ross and Nigel Short both place it as the penultimate piece in the Requiem. There are also some textural variations between the three recordings.
As a very broad generalisation Peter Phillips sometimes moves the music forward with a little more urgency while Nigel Short and Graham Ross are a little more expansive in their treatment of the music. I find that each conductor is highly persuasive. In terms of the respective standard of performance all three recordings are excellent. The Tallis Scholars are, of course, specialists in this sort of repertoire. Tenebrae aren’t quite specialists – their repertoire ranges rather more widely – but, like Peter Phillips Nigel Short has a hand-picked group of highly experienced professional singers at his disposal.
The students of Clare College are not (yet) comparably experienced but they do not suffer at all in comparison with the two rival ensembles. They give a tremendously accomplished and profoundly satisfying performance of Victoria’s masterpiece and at no stage when I compared them with the other two groups did I feel that they were in any way disadvantaged. Indeed, I think it’s a tribute to the excellence and commitment of these young singers – and a tribute, too, to the way that Graham Ross has prepared them – that their performance stands up so very well against the very fierce competition from Tenebrae and The Tallis Scholars.
I was struck by the lovely blend of lines that the Clare singers achieve in the Introit. This may be the largest of the three choirs to which I listened but there’s an impressive clarity to the performance. Throughout the Requiem everything is beautifully balanced. I also admired very much the purity of tone that the sopranos consistently achieve. All sections of the choir sound fresh throughout the performance; the collective sound is most attractive.
The Offertorium offers an example of the fairly expansive approach that Graham Ross adopts. Here you can tell that he’s conducting the largest choir of the three but I must emphasise that the choral tone doesn’t sound overweight in any respect. The Clare choir sings Versa est in luctum beautifully. The performance is spacious but there’s no sense at all of the music dragging. Here and elsewhere there’s genuine – but suitably controlled – feeling behind the performance. The most extended movement in the work is the last one, the Responsorium. Ross and his young singers offer an intense but poised performance. The plainchant passages are sung with fluency and pure tone by the sopranos. These are indeed sublime obsequies.
If you already have one or more versions of the Victoria Requiem in your collection – perhaps one of the two that I’ve mentioned above – would it be an indulgence to invest also in this Clare College performance? You’ll not be surprised to find that I don’t think it would be indulgent. In the first place you’ll acquire an extremely well sung performance of this wonderful music – and it’s a cause for celebration that a student choir should more than hold its own in this demanding repertoire against seasoned professional rivals. There’s an additional incentive, though. Tenebrae and The Tallis Scholars will offer more Renaissance polyphony alongside the Victoria. That may well be true of other recordings also. Clare College offer a rather different experience, however, placing the Victoria alongside a mixed and highly complementary selection of English and Spanish music. It’s a very satisfying programme.
If you need further encouragement to investigate this new disc then I should say that the documentation is very good and the recorded sound is first class. This is another recording engineered and produced by John Rutter and once more he’s achieved some excellent results. Two venues were used and though we’re not told where the individual pieces were set down my guess is that those requiring organ accompaniment were recorded in St Albans Abbey. It would be hard to think of a more appropriate venue for recording parts of this programme of music for All Saints and All Souls than the church of All Hallows. Incidentally, that was also the venue for the Tenebrae recording of the Victoria.
This series of themed recitals by the Clare College choir has been highly rewarding to date. I hope they can identify more fests or seasons in the ecclesiastical calendar to celebrate in music.