Mater ora filium - Music for Epiphany
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross. Michael Papadopoulos (organ)
rec. 10-11 January 2016, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London; 23 January 2016, Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent
Texts and translations (English, French, German) included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907653 [72:44]

Hot on the heels of their Remembrance recital here is another release from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in their series in which each issue focuses on a season in the liturgical year. The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on 6 January, is a major festival in the Christian calendar because it marks the revelation of the new-born Christ to the Gentiles in the shape of the Three Kings. Yet musically speaking the feast can be overshadowed, coming as it does just twelve days after Christmas, by which time many people are ‘carolled out’.

As Graham Ross’s discerningly chosen programme confirms there’s a great deal of excellent music associated with the Feast of the Epiphany. This includes the three great hymns that he’s arranged. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness is a particularly fine example but, sadly, it’s so specific to the Epiphany that for the rest of the year it’s not really possible to sing it. At least the other two hymns can be used a bit more frequently. Ross’s arrangements are effective – I like very much the rolling organ part in the second verse of As with gladness men of old. Occasionally the harmonies strike me as being a bit too adventurous for their own good and the descants do try rather too hard, I think, but nonetheless these are good arrangements.

There are some choice examples of Renaissance polyphony. In his notes Graham Ross describes di Lasso’s Omnes de Saba as “an arresting flourish for double choir”. How right he is, and his choir ensures that the piece opens the programme jubilantly. The pure, fresh voices of the Clare singers are delightful to hear in Sheppard’s wonderful six-part Reges Tharsis while both the music and performance of Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum have a genuine sense of celebration. Ross rightly points out the ingenuity and structural discipline of Jean Mouton’s Nesciens mater. Without wishing to diminish the composer’s technical achievements what surely distinguishes this masterly eight-part setting above all else is the sublime beauty of the music – and the way in which Mouton so eloquently responds to the words. The Clare choir gives a rapt performance.

Peter Cornelius’s The Three Kings is a well-trodden musical path. Here it’s taken a little more briskly than is often the case and Laurence Harris is a fine baritone soloist. Rather less familiar is one of the Howells pieces, Long, long ago. Dating from 1950, it sets a poem by John Buxton (1912-1989). Strictly speaking it’s more of a Christmas text than one for Epiphany but who cares? It’s a very fine piece and when so many choirs just automatically reach for their copies of A Spotless Rose at Christmas-time I wish a few more would follow the example of Graham Ross and offer Long, long ago instead. It’s a most rewarding piece and the present performance is a very fine one in which Howells’ characteristic harmonies are well realised. The other Howells piece, Here is the little door is much earlier – it dates from 1918 – and is better-known. Howells is wonderfully responsive to the text by Frances Chesterton (1875-1938). The performance is very refined and I particularly applaud the urgency in the passage that begins ‘For Gold, He gives a keen-edged sword’.

Disappointments are very few and far between in this programme but as a matter of personal taste I’m not a great fan of David Hill’s arrangement of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down. This exists in two versions: the familiar and serenely beautiful a cappella choral version and a later version as an accompanied solo song. Hill’s arrangement conflates the two versions. I grant that in the original the setting of each of the four stanzas is the same but I far prefer it. Incidentally, Ross and his choir have already recorded the a cappella version (review). The other Warlock offering, Benedicamus Domino is despatched with exuberant precision.

Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem is something of a classic of twentieth century Christmas music. I greatly admire the urgency and clarity that the Clare College singers bring to the piece. I’m not sure I’ve previously heard Judith Bingham’s Epiphany. It was commissioned for the enthronement of a new Bishop of Winchester on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1996. The text is by the composer. Like so much of Bingham’s choral music it’s a most impressive piece. It opens in a mood of subdued contemplation but rises in both volume and urgency until a big climax is achieved at the closing line ‘In dazzling darkness, God appears.’ After that the work ends with a short but tremendous organ postlude.

Pride of place, though, must go to the work which furnishes the album with its title: Bax’s Mater ora filium. Inspired by Tudor polyphony, Bax’s double choir setting is very complex texturally and harmonically. As the piece unfolds the music grows in complexity and richness and it makes huge demands on the choir. These young singers seem undaunted by the manifold challenges that Bax throws their way and no matter how complex the polyphony the music is always rendered with clarity. Nor does Graham Ross allow the music to linger self-indulgently. While the richness of Bax’s quasi-orchestral writing is relished to the full the performance always moves forward with a sense of purpose. The choir sings with complete assurance and the sopranos are especially valiant – the top C at the climax on ‘Lord of right’ is hit truly and sustained thrillingly. This is a superb performance.

The engineering has been done, once again, by John Rutter and he’s achieved excellent results. The documentation is comprehensive. With rewarding and varied music, marvellously performed, this disc is a sure-fire winner.

John Quinn

Orlando di LASSO (c 1530/32-1594) Omnes de Saba [1:59]
Trad, arr. Graham ROSS (b 1985) O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness [3:08]
John SHEPPARD (c 1515-1558) Reges Tharsis [4:40]
William BYRD (c 1539/540-1623) 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 (1892-1983) 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. David HILL (b 1957) Bethlehem Down [5:13]
Judith WEIR (b 1954) Illuminare, Jerusalem [2:084]
John Jacob NILES (1892-1980) arr. John RUTTER (b 1945) I wonder as I wander [2:58]
Herbert HOWELLS Here is the little door [3:17]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) arr. Ivor ATKINS (1869-1953) The Three Kings [2:13]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) 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]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Mater ora filium [10:25]

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