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]

Our modern secularised age tends to conflate the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany into one, if it thinks of them at all; and it’s one of the many great services rendered by Graham Ross’s series of liturgical discs that he encourages us to separate them out again, consider their individual meanings, and enjoy some of the music that has been written to celebrate their very different messages.

This new disc is every bit as good as its predecessors. Ross curates a programme that ranges through Renaissance polyphony and the 20th century, and which both opens the ears of the listener and showcases the versatility of his choir. It’s often very easy to forget that this is a choir of young amateurs, none of whom can have sung together for any more than three consecutive years. When you consider that and the quality of the sound that they produce, Ross’s remarkable achievement as a choral director comes into even starker relief.

The section of Renaissance polyphony all sounds excellent. Lasso’s Omnes de Saba is a wonderfully bright way to begin the disc; light, airy, throbbing with life. The Byrd and Sheppard sound architectural and beautifully worked out, while the translucent lines of Clemens non Papa and Palestrina seem to cascade over one another with a spiritual glow. Mouton’s Nesciens mater is taken significantly slower than I’m used to hearing it, but that helps create a web of ambient sound that blooms beautifully in the acoustic of All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak.

The 20th century section works every bit as well. Poulenc’s Videntes stellam is presented straightforwardly and very effectively, as is Cornelius’ famous Three Kings carol. They sing the English works as to the manner born. Howells’ Long, long ago sounds both beautiful and thoughtful, as does Here is the Little Door, and the performance of Judith Bingham’s Epiphany makes the words spring to life. Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem gets right inside the spidery vocal line, while Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden sounds bright and still. The two Warlock settings are beautifully sung, and I especially liked hearing Bethlehem Down sung in the arrangement with organ accompaniment, adding an extra layer of sound to the well-known a capella version.

Bax’s Mater ora filium is a glorious piece, and a new discovery for me. I wonder if, in fact, it was Ross’s inspiration for the disc as a whole? Bax sets some stanzas of an ancient carol setting, but he creates something both simple in its strophic form and remarkably complex in the soaring lines of music that weave around the words, the stratospheric soprano line crowning the whole edifice in the third and fourth stanzas. It’s remarkably virtuosic singing of a marvellous piece, perhaps the finest thing I’ve yet heard from this choir, and it blooms in the beautiful acoustic.

On the other end of the scale, I really liked the fact that Ross includes arrangements of three well known congregational hymns. It reminds us that these seasons are participatory events, not just something for the people to observe from a distance. The arrangements themselves are uncontroversial but very successful, and their presence set the seal on a disc that I enjoyed very much indeed.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Brian Wilson

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]
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]
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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