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Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany
Details after review
Michael Papadopoulos (organ)
Alexander Porteous (tenor); Laurence Harris (baritone)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
rec. All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, 10-11 January 2016, and Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent, 23 January 2016. DDD.
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907653 [72:32]

Reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet from

We shall soon have a complete set of recordings for the Christian year from Clare: we now have Advent (HMU907579 – review); Christmas (HMU907615 – review) Epiphany – the current recording – Passiontide (HMU907616: Recording of the Month – review); Easter (HMU907655 – review); Ascension and Pentecost (HMU907623 – review - review) and Remembrance (HMU907654 – review). All have been well received on MusicWeb-International and this is no exception.

The new recording is especially welcome in that Epiphany nowadays gets telescoped into Christmas whereas the visit of the Magi properly has a celebration of its own on 6 January or Twelfth Night. The Victorians, who are credited with many of our Christmas traditions, put paid to the twelve days of celebration. When most of the population worked in the fields and the remainder usually had enough leisure time, taking twelve days out at a time when the weather was usually unsuitable for outdoor work didn’t hinder productivity but when people moved to work in factories in towns, with the steam engines providing more than enough warmth, the Gradgrinds no longer tolerated all the frivolous goings on. The unreconstructed Scrooge expected Bob Cratchit to turn up as usual on Boxing Day, so no waiting even for New Year, the traditional date to give a ‘handsel’ or seasonal gift.

In the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Christmas fun was just about getting under way Wyle Nw 3er watz so 3ep şat hit watz nwe cummen and Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte. (While New Year was so fresh that it had newly come [and] Christmas greetings [were] repeated again, mentioned very often.) Then the monstrous green knight rode in and spoiled all the fun by daring Gawain to cut his head off, calmly picking it up again and riding out of the hall.

Nearly everything on this Epiphany album is first-rate. Listen to Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, which receives a particularly sensitive performance (track 12) and you may expect Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem on the next track to strike a more overtly modern note, with I wonder as I wander on track 14 offering another abrupt contrast, but the performances are such that I didn’t feel any sense of disruption or discontinuity. The arrangement of I wonder as I wander is the one exception to this being an apparently Rutter-free zone but I doubt if even his critics would baulk at this not unduly sentimental arrangement. In fact John Rutter also had a hand in producing, editing and engineering the CD.

I have just a few reservations. Six of the first seven tracks contain music by renaissance composers, so the inclusion of Graham Ross’s own arrangement of O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness on track 2 breaks the sequence, especially as the arrangement requires a different approach, one very much in the cathedral and collegiate Anglican tradition. These arrangements are claimed as première recordings but I didn’t find anything startlingly original in them for good or ill.

Otherwise the mixture of old and new works very well, though the choir don’t always dispel memories of specialist groups in these early pieces: John Sheppard’s Reges Tharsis (track 2) cannot compare with two all-Sheppard CDs – the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, directed by Duncan Ferguson (Delphian DCD34123: Recording of the Month – reviewreview) and The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips (Gimell CDGIM016 or better value on CDGIM210 2-for-1 Tallis Scholars sing Tudor Church Music 2: Bargain of the Month – review).

The work which gives the album its title, Bax’s Mater ora filium, closes the programme in excellent style. There are not too many recordings of this fine piece of music: of those listed in the current UK catalogue, only one other is available on disc and some of them are no longer available even, apparently, as downloads – including the very fine Paul McCreesh collection on DG, A spotless Rose – review. A great loss unless you live in Japan.

The first recording of this work, from Albert Coates (1925), is available on Symposium CD1336 (download only). Not only is it a crackly and dry old recording, the performance sounds dreary and mournful by comparison with the Clare recording. Presumably Coates knew what Bax wanted but the new recording shaves more than a minute off the overall time and sounds all the better for it.

Elsewhere I’m pleased to see Herbert Howells and Peter Warlock contributing two works each, the only composers to do so.

There’s no SACD* but the 24/96 download compensates and it’s available as I write for a limited period for the same price as 16-bit from it’s always worth checking their recent releases for such offers.

The download comes with the booklet, containing useful notes, but I do wish that those who translate Medieval Latin would get it right. The ablative absolute Procedenti puero ... Virginis ex utero (track 18) does not mean ‘The servant has gone ahead … from the virgin’s womb’, which makes no sense. Puer can mean servant, but here the meaning is ‘The boy who proceeds [or has proceeded]… from the virgin’s womb’. The German and French versions paraphrase but get it about right. At least we are given the texts: too many Christmas recording booklets omit them.

There are not too many recordings specifically devoted to Epiphany but even in a more crowded field this would shine.

* I’m perplexed that so many record companies have ditched this format – many of them in favour of a return to vinyl. There are honourable exceptions, not least BIS, and others are turning to blu-ray audio: I’m delighted with the BD-A version of the new Naxos Die Walküre – more convenient than the CDs, in a better audio format and half the price. (NBD0051).

Brian Wilson

Previous review: John Quinn

Orlando di LASSO (1532-1594) Omnes de Saba [1:59]
Trad. arr. Graham Ross O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness [3:08]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515–1558) Reges Tharsis [4:40]
William BYRD (c.1539/40–1623) Ecce advenit dominator Dominus [2:23]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Tribus miraculis ornatum [3:24]
Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (c.1510/15-1555/56) Magi veniunt ab oriente [2:31]
Jean MOUTON (c.1459–1522) Nesciens mater [5:37]
Francis POULENC (1899–1963) Videntes stellam [2:44]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892–1982) Long, long ago [4:34]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) Epiphany [3:28]
Trad. arr. Graham Ross Hail to the Lord’s Anointed! [3:48]
Peter WARLOCK (1894–1930) arr Graham Hill Bethlehem Down [5:13]
Judith WEIR (b.1954) Illuminare, Jerusalem [2:04]
John Jacob NILES (1892–1980) arr John Rutter I wonder as I wander [2:58]
Herbert HOWELLS Here is the little door [3:17]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824–74) arr Ivor Atkins The Three Kings [2:13]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903–89) I sing of a maiden [2:50]
Peter WARLOCK Benedicamus Domino [1:21]
Trad. arr. Graham Ross As with gladness men of old [3:04]
Arnold BAX (1883–1953) Mater ora filium [10:25]

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