Attrib. Richard FARRANT (1525-1580)
Call to Remembrance [1:52]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
When David heard [4:34]
Kontakion of the Dead Kiev melody [4:08]
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013)
Song for Athene [6:02]
Robert RAMSEY (c.1590-1644)
How are the mighty fallen [6:48]
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us, O Lord God [3:34]
William Henry MONK (1825-1889)
Abide with me (arr. Graham Ross) [5:14]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
They are at rest [3:44]
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
When David heard [3:58]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op. 9 (1948) [37:42]
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo); Neal Davies (bass); Guy Johnston (cello); Matthew Jorysz (organ); Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
rec. 22 March 2015, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire; 23-24 March 2015, Lincoln Cathedral
Texts and English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907654 [72:44]

Here’s another in the excellent series of discs from the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge built around liturgical seasons. Previous releases have included programmes for Advent (review), Christmas (review), Passiontide (review) and, most recently, for Ascensiontide and Pentecost (review). The month of November is the time of year when the Christian Church remembers particularly the Faithful Departed. This choir has already marked that seasonal observance with a recital of music for All Saints and All Souls (review) but this latest programme is rather different in that it focuses on Remembrance and, as Graham Ross says in his notes, on pieces that “commemorate the loss and sacrifice of others”. The cornerstone of the programme is Duruflé’s Requiem and it’s preceded by a selection of very apposite a cappella pieces.

The programme includes the magnificent double choir anthem by Sir William Harris, Bring us, O Lord God. I love this anthem which rarely fails to move me, so wonderfully does Harris respond to John Donne’s eloquent words. The present performance is a very good one indeed. I noticed with great interest that once again the producer and engineer of this disc is John Rutter and so it was no surprise to find that the location for the recording of the a cappella items was the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. This has long been a favourite recording haunt of Rutter’s; he made a number of his own discs with the Cambridge Singers there in the very same chapel. In fact the first recording of Harris’s wonderful piece that I ever owned was a recording that Rutter and the Cambridge Singers made there in the early 1990s (Collegium CPLCD 113). Out of interest I dug out the disc. Rutter is a little more measured in his approach, which I like – he takes 4:05 – and the choral sound is different too. The Cambridge Singers are not as closely recorded as are the Clare choir and it makes a difference, excellent though the Harmonia Mundi recording is. The voices of Rutter’s own singers were, I suspect, slightly more mature than Graham Ross’s student singers and there’s a slight edge to the Clare soprano tone. For these reasons I think Rutter’s own recording enjoys a slight advantage.

The same Collegium disc also contains the setting of When David heard by Tomkins. Once again the Cambridge Singers’ version is marginally to be preferred and for the same reasons. That said, The Clare performance of Tomkins’ wonderfully intense expression of patrician grief is a very satisfying one. They are equally successful in the setting of the same words by Thomas Weelkes. Robert Ramsey’s How are the mighty fallen is, like the Weelkes and Tomkins anthems, another setting of words from the second book of Samuel, this time lamenting not Absalom but the dead Jonathan. This isn’t quite as familiar a piece as the other two but it’s a very fine setting. It’s interesting to hear Ramsey’s more overtly expressive approach which Graham Ross ascribes to the influence of Italian music.

The choir sings the very beautiful Orthodox Kontakion of the Dead immaculately and it was a very intelligent idea to follow that music with Tavener’s Song for Athene which is so influenced by Orthodox liturgical music. The performance is restrained yet heartfelt until the work’s climax is reached at “Come, enjoy the rewards …” I was interested to learn that at this point in the score Tavener’s instruction to the singers is “with resplendent joy in the Resurrection”.

Duruflé’s serene Requiem is an ideal component for this Remembrance programme because the composer began it as the Second World War was drawing to a close. I had forgotten, until I read the notes, that it was first broadcast on French Radio on 2 November 1947, the Feast of All Souls. That performance used the original version of the score with accompaniment by full orchestra and organ. Here Graham Ross opts for the 1948 second version, which is for organ only. I’m glad of that because I prefer to hear the work either in this version or in the 1961 version which calls for a small orchestra and organ. By sheer coincidence, this Clare College disc arrived with me when the ink was scarcely dry on a review I’d written of a recording of the Requiem by another Cambridge college choir. That was by the Choir of King’s College and Stephen Cleobury.

The Cleobury recording uses the 1961 version. The performance is very good but there are several ways in which I prefer this Clare recording. One is a matter of subjective personal taste. The King’s performance uses an all-male choir. It’s refreshing to hear the work sung by such a choir but my personal preference is to hear a mixed SATB choir. There are several passages where the alto part is very significant. I’m bound to say that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the sound of the King’s male altos in Duruflé’s music. Four out of the five Clare altos are female and their less edgy sound is much more suited to the music, I think. For me, the Clare recording has a clear advantage over the King’s version when it comes to the ‘Pie Jesu’. I really didn’t care for the performance of Cleobury’s mezzo, Patricia Bardon, but Jennifer Johnston, who sings for Graham Ross, is very much to my taste. I think the degree of expressiveness she brings to this lovely solo is just right, as is the extent to which she deploys vibrato. She makes the climax of the movement fervent without any suggestion of excess. On the King’s recording I also thought that the obbligato cellist was rather too reticent. No such concerns here: Guy Johnston plays eloquently and he’s very nicely balanced.

There are two short passages in the piece which can be sung by a solo baritone though Stephen Cleobury follows Duruflé’s stated preference to have the passages sung by all the baritones and second tenors of the choir. Graham Ross opts for a soloist; the estimable Neal Davies. In his second solo, in the ‘Libera me’ movement I felt Davies was a bit over-emphatic although in fairness to him it should be said that the passage is marked agitato. The first solo, in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, is very well done, especially the rising phrase on “tu suscipe” which sounds glorious here – and effortless, even though it rises to a top F and Davies is billed as a bass.

The choir sings extremely well throughout and the slight edge that I detected in the soprano tone during the a cappella items is now absent. I suspect this is because the singers are not quite as closely recorded and the acoustic of Lincoln Cathedral is much bigger than is the case with the Ely chapel – I presume the Lincoln recording was made in the quire. In the Duruflé the sound of the sopranos is even more pleasing, not least in the seraphic ‘In Paradisum’, which they float beautifully. Graham Ross conducts the work with evident sympathy and fine attention to detail. I love, for example, the fluidity he achieves in the ‘Lux aeterna’. The crucial organ part is played by Matthew Jorysz who, at the time of this recording, was approaching the end of his time as Organ Scholar at Clare: he’s since gone on to the prestigious post of Assistant Organist at Westminster Abbey. Lincoln Cathedral’s ‘Father’ Willis organ is not a French-sounding instrument but notwithstanding that Jorysz, who plays expertly, produces an entirely convincing account of the accompaniment.

This very fine account of the Duruflé Requiem sets the seal on a thoughtfully conceived and expertly performed programme. The Clare College choir is among the finest of the UK’s collegiate choirs and this new release is fully up to the standards we’ve come to expect from them. The recorded sound in both venues is very good. The Lincoln Cathedral acoustic has been well managed and my only – slight – reservation about the sound achieved at Ely is to wonder if an even more pleasing result could have been achieved had the singers been a little further away from the microphones. The booklet, which is in English, French and German, is exemplary.

Another album from this excellent choir is due imminently. That will contain music for Epiphany. I look forward to that keenly.

John Quinn

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