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The Eternal Ecstasy - Music of Visionary Transcendence
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge/Sarah MacDonald
rec. 24-26 June 2013, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral
Texts and English translations included
REGENT REGCD427 [72:48]

When I received this disc with its rather florid title and saw that the programme included such oft-recorded pieces as those by Whitacre and Lauridsen I wondered whether we actually needed another disc of this nature. However, further scrutiny of the musical menu indicated that this was an unfair judgement because there are quite a number of pieces here that are unfamiliar. Indeed, five pieces – those by Iain Quinn, Phillip Cooke, David Bednall, Alan Bullard and John Duggan – have not previously been recorded.

As Gary Cole explains in the booklet note, the idea behind this album is to “[trace] the development of the so-called ‘Ecstatic’ style, epitomised by the choral works of … Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre.” Within that remit the music has been discerningly chosen.

The choir numbers 33 singers (10/8/7/8) and they acquit themselves well in a demanding programme. The sound of the choir is fresh and focused. Occasionally I felt that the soprano line was a little too prominent; this seemed particularly noticeable in the Lauridsen where the soprano sound was rather too bright for my taste, putting slightly too much edge onto what was otherwise an admirable performance. For the most part, though, the sound of the choir is pleasing and it suits the chosen repertoire.

I’ve heard quite a bit of music by Cecilia McDowall and I’ve formed a very favourable impression. She writes imaginatively for voices and this is true of Regina Caeli where the alternation of slow music and passages that are more swiftly paced works very well. I don’t believe I’ve previously heard any music by Iain Quinn but if Adoremus in aeternam is typical of his output then I should like to hear more. In this piece the writing is mostly homophonic and it sounds very well, especially in the warm, nicely resonant acoustic of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral.

I also liked very much Phillip Cooke’s The eternal ecstasy. This is a setting of some lines, in English translation, from the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Much of the writing is darkly intense, which befits the mysticism of the words. Part way through there’s an important alto solo during which the soloist is gently accompanied by soft, luminous writing for the sopranos. It’s a pity that the soloist, who sings very attractively, isn’t credited. I’ve come across quite a lot of choral music by David Bednall and I’ve admired what I’ve heard to date. The law of the Lord is another impressive piece and I agree with Gary Cole’s identification of “a rich, post-Howells chromaticism” in the harmonic language.

Alan Bullard’s The spacious firmament contains some of the most texturally complex music on the programme – I understand that the choir is divided into as many as eight parts. It’s done well by the Selwyn choir. They also make a good job of the four short pieces that comprise Paul Mealor’s Now sleeps the crimson petal. The last of these, A spotless Rose, is the most memorable of the set; here the music is slow and rapt, making a fine impression.

I have heard several of the pieces before. I enjoyed the fluent account of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. MacMillan’s Christus vincit is an interesting response to a text that is more usually set to music that is celebratory, if not downright triumphal. MacMillan, always his own man, produces a surprisingly subdued setting. There’s no hint of triumphalism here; instead the piece is a very imaginative meditation on the majesty of Christ. The writing for the sopranos is especially demanding at times and once or twice it sounds as if the Selwyn sopranos are under a bit of pressure. Eric Whitacre’s radiant Lux aurumque is justly popular and the choir gives a good account of it. They impress just as much in Sir William Harris’ wonderful John Donne setting, Bring us, O Lord God. I’m not sure I agree with Gary Cole’s statement that the piece “introduces to English choral music a new expression of spiritual intensity”: what about the choral music of Herbert Howells, much of which preceded the Harris piece?

Overall the Selwyn College choir does very well in this challenging programme. I’ve heard several of their previous discs and while those have all been good I think the present offering is their best to date. I enjoyed the performances and the selection of music is rewarding. The recording, made in the wonderful acoustics of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel, is very good.

John Quinn
 
Track-listing
Randall THOMPSON (1899–1984) Alleluia (1940) [5:55]
Sir John TAVENER (1944–2013) A Hymn to the Mother of God (1985) [2:55]  
Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951)
Regina Caeli (2004) [3:23]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970)
Lux aurumque [4:10]  
Iain QUINN (b. 1973)
Adoremus in aeternum [3:24]
Phillip COOKE (b. 1980)
The eternal ecstasy (2013) [5:33]  
David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
The law of the Lord (2008)[3:29]
Alan BULLARD (b. 1947)
The spacious firmament (1989) [7:00]
Sir James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Christus vincit (1994) [6:50]  
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
Nunc autem manet (2010) [3:31]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
O magnum mysterium (1994) [6:47]
Paul MEALOR (b. 1975)
Now sleeps the crimson petal (2010):-
i. Now sleeps the crimson petal [3:46]
ii. Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting [3:04]
iii. Upon a bank with roses set about [1:57]
iv. A spotless Rose [6:02]
Sir William HARRIS (1883–1973)
Bring us, O Lord God (1959) [4:56]

 

 




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