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John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Psalmfest (1993) [50:25]
This is the day (2011) [5:04]
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge (2008) [10:37]
Psalm 150 (2002) [5:37]
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano); Pascal Charbonneau (tenor); Miles Allen (trumpet); Tom Winpenny (organ)
St Albans Cathedral Choir and Abbey Girls’ Choir; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Lucas
rec. 14-17 July 2014, The Cathedral Church and Abbey of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK
English texts included
NAXOS 8.573394 [71:43]

This is the second disc of music by John Rutter that Andrew Lucas and his St Albans choirs have made. A few years ago they released one that included the composer’s Gloria and Magnificat. Reviewing it, I said that it could “more than hold its own” in the face of competition from the composer himself and from Stephen Layton and Polyphony. This time they have the field to themselves because the main offering here is the world premiere recording of Rutter’s Psalmfest. This is a substantial score, as the timing suggests and in some ways I’ve wondered at the lack of a recording to date. However, much of the score has been previously recorded because most of the nine psalm settings that Rutter drew together under the collective title of Psalmfest were existing stand-alone anthems. The fifth movement, Cantate Domino, was unpublished until it was included in Psalmfest and the eighth setting, O how amiable are thy dwellings was the only new composition in the collection.

A note in the vocal score by the composer indicates a performing time of 45 minutes for Psalmfest. By that measure Andrew Lucas’s performance might seem on the slow side. However, it seemed to me that not only did his speeds feel right in themselves but also his timings for individual movements are close to those achieved by other conductors, including Rutter himself. It’s interesting to see that in the same note Rutter gives conductors discretion to omit movements if they wish. He cites two movements in particular: The Lord is my Shepherd, which, having started out as an independent anthem was later folded into the Requiem (1985), and O how amiable are thy dwellings if soloists are unavailable. In fact, much though I enjoyed Psalmfest I do wonder if nine movements heard consecutively in concert might be a bit too much of a good thing: perhaps it will be of greatest use to choirs as a compendium from which movements may be drawn.

I’ve commented before in reviewing Rutter’s music that while it may appear ‘easy’ when heard it is in fact quite demanding. Moreover, it is often very skilfully composed and as I followed this performance in the score the compositional skill certainly registered very strongly with me. Just because the music is tuneful and accessible – and Rutter has an undeniable melodic gift – one can easily overlook the way in which he enhances the interest of the music through rhythmic cunning or through ear-tickling key changes.

Psalmfest can be performed in one of two versions. One option is to use the colours of a full orchestra. Alternatively, a small ensemble of three woodwind instruments, timpani, percussion, harp and organ may be used. Andrew Lucas has opted for the full orchestral version.

First we hear O be joyful in the Lord (Psalm 100), originally published in 1984. This opens with trademark Rutter jollity and rhythmic bounce. However, before long the words of the psalm demand a slower, more thoughtful approach and as will be the case often in these settings Rutter responds to the words intelligently, moderating the upbeat nature of the music into something much more lyrical. Then comes I will lift up mine eyes (Psalm 121, 1976). This opens and closes with a chord progression that may remind you of the ‘New World’ symphony. It’s a rather lovely piece; it’s melodic and simple on the surface but the predominant 7/4 time signature and the key changes keep the performers on their toes.

Praise the Lord, O my soul (Psalm 148, 1981) follows. This setting is bouncy at the beginning and end but in between there’s a good deal of rhythmic variety and Rutter responds well to the changing sentiments of the text as it unfolds. This is one of the most interesting and resourceful settings in the collection. The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23, 1978) is the most familiar of all the movements. However, it’s heard here in a slightly different version in which the soprano and tenor soloists sing the opening pages and also have a passage later on. I have to say I prefer the choral version though I readily acknowledge that may be because it’s what I’m used to. Soprano Elizabeth Cragg sings nicely, though her vibrato is perhaps a bit rich for the music. I’m afraid I’m not keen on the French-Canadian tenor, Pascal Charbonneau. The sound he makes is fine but it’s his way with the words that grates slightly with me, not on account of his very slightly accented English but because he tries too hard to enunciate the words expressively and ends up overdoing things. The choir sing the central passage (‘Yea, though I walk thro’ the valley of the shadow of death’) as usual. Here is the only point in the performance that I think Andrew Lucas gets slightly wrong. The music needs a bit more edge here and Lucas’s choir sounds smooth and a little placid.

Cantata Domino (Psalm 96) was written in 1991 but not published until it formed part of Psalmfest. It’s the only unaccompanied movement and it’s both lively and challenging. The St Albans singers make a fine job of it, investing the music with bite and vitality and always maintaining clarity. The Lord is my light and my salvation (Psalm 27, 1989) has been altered from the original, allocating some passages originally for a section of the choir to one or other of the soloists. I slightly prefer the original, as recorded, for instance, by the Cambridge Singers and the composer (Collegium COLCD 122). However, in either version it’s a good and varied setting. When I first heard it, many years ago, I didn’t much like O clap your hands (Psalm 47, 1973); the bouncy jollity of the opening in particular seemed a bit relentless to me. I’ve changed my mind, however; there’s more depth than I’d first appreciated in the centre of the setting.
O how amiable are thy dwellings (Psalm 27) was freshly composed for this collection. It’s a duet for soprano and tenor and it’s most attractive. Despite my reservation about Pascal Charbonneau’s delivery the soloists sing it well. Psalmfest concludes with O praise the Lord of heaven (Psalm 148, 1981), which is the only double choir movement. Here Rutter pulls out all the stops, using lots of brass in the accompaniment and also deploying with great skill quite a number of compositional devices, including an inventive fugal episode. It’s a demanding setting but Lucas and his forces pull it off splendidly.

The other three items on the programme are also settings of psalms. This is the day, which combines verses from five psalms, was specially composed for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Psalm 150 also has a royal connection: it was composed for the service to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002. Lord, Thou has been our refuge is a setting of Psalm 84. Incidentally, a word of appreciation is due to Naxos for including a decent gap before each of the last three tracks; a small touch but one that matters.

I remember thinking when I first heard This is the day that one might have expected Rutter to provide an extrovert piece for a Royal Wedding. In fact, Rutter was a bit more original than that and the piece, though very happy in tone, is lyrical and, at times, rather thoughtful – for instance it ends quietly. It’s a most attractive, melodious piece. Lord, Thou has been our refuge is very different. Extensive use is made of a solo trumpet, including a long solo at the very start, and the only other instrument involved is the organ. Although the piece achieves a couple of majestic climaxes much of the writing is deliberately spare in texture, the trumpet acting as an effective foil to the choir. The piece put me in mind of the Vaughan Williams setting of the same text, though Rutter’s is far from an imitation or pastiche; it’s a fine piece. To round off proceedings we hear Psalm 150 in which the choir is accompanied by brass, percussion and organ. There’s a suitably festive tone to the music but good use is made of a trio of trebles, placed at a distance; these boys interject Latin phrases from the psalm. It’s an exciting conclusion to the disc.

This disc is full of attractive music and the performers acquit themselves very well indeed. It’s nice to hear a mix of trebles and girl sopranos on the top line – the two distinctive timbres marry well – and also the astringency of male altos. All the choral singing is excellent while the instrumental accompaniments are colourful and incisive. The recorded sound is very good – one is aware of the resonance of the Abbey but it’s not overdone. The booklet includes notes by John Rutter himself.

Finally, it’s appropriate to mention that the recording was financed by a bequest to St Albans Cathedral by the late distinguished organist, Dr John Birch (1929-2012). Birch has several links with this album: he played on a number of recordings of Rutter’s music; he was organist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for many years; and during his time as Professor of Organ at the Royal College of Music (1959-1997) one of his many pupils who went on to have important careers of their own was Andrew Lucas. This highly enjoyable disc is a fitting memorial to a fine musician.

John Quinn



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