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Pange lingua - Music for Corpus Christi
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
Michael Papadopoulos (organ)
rec. June/July 2016, Norwich Cathedral; Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral
Texts and translations (English, French, German) included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907688 [75:19]

The Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday so, depending on when Easter falls, it occurs between late May and mid-June. It feels rather appropriate to write this review shortly before the feast day falls in 2017 (on 15 June.)

This latest release from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge focusses on that liturgical feast and specifically the programme is built round the five Eucharistic hymns that St Thomas Aquinas wrote in 1264 at the request of Pope Urban IV. Almost all the pieces here recorded set texts that use Aquinas’s words – Richard Crashaw’s words that Finzi set as Lo, the full, final Sacrifice are based on Aquinas. The exceptions are Ave verum corpus, heard in a recent setting by Graham Ross himself, and the Ordinary of the Mass though Josquin used as his cantus firmus the Phrygian mode chant to which Aquinas’s hymn Pange lingua gloriosi is sung.

Graham Ross prefaces the performance of the Josquin Mass with the plainchant melody on which the Mass is based. I always find it helpful to hear the cantus firmus melody immediately before a polyphonic Mass though in this particular case the melody is so well known that it’s a little less vital than is sometimes the case. The Mass itself is very well sung. I approve of the way that Ross uses solo voices at times for textural variety. No less than 10 members of his 29-strong choir are allotted solo roles and all acquit themselves very well. Worthy of special mention are the two fine female soloists, Alice Halstead and Catherine Clark, who give an expert account of the extended two-voice ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ section of the Sanctus (1:12 – 3:32). Later in the same movement tenor and bass soloists sing the two-part Benedictus (4:51 – 6:45) and here Lawrence Booth-Clibborn and Joshua Pacey also do a fine job. A highlight of the entire composition, rightly singled out by Graham Ross in his booklet note, is the central section of the Credo. The homophonic ‘Et incarnatus est’ (2:46) is beautifully balanced in this performance and Josquin’s moment of stillness and mystery is heard to fine effect so that the exuberant polyphony with which the Resurrection is then announced really makes its mark. This is a very different sort of performance as compared to a consort performance by an ensemble such as The Tallis Scholars, of course, but I enjoyed it and I admired the skill that the choir brings to the music.

More polyphonic pieces follow. Sandwiched in between the joyful pieces by Victoria and Byrd is the beautiful setting of O salutaris hostia by Pierre de la Rue. This is spacious, devotional music and Ross’s choir gives a lovely performance of it.

All the unaccompanied pieces, which is to say everything except the Finzi, have been recorded in the wonderfully sympathetic acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. I’m not surprised at this choice because the producer/engineer of the disc is, once again, John Rutter and I recall that years ago it was his venue of choice for many of the recordings he made with his Cambridge Singers. The acoustic makes a very welcome contribution to the sound and nowhere more so than in Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence. This is given a fervent performance in which the ringing sound of the tenors is noticeable – in a wholly beneficial way, I hasten to add.

It’s fascinating to hear in succession the settings of O sacrum convivium by Villette and Messiaen. They contrast in a most satisfying way. Villette uses very full, luxuriant harmonies. His is a fine, ecstatic setting but I feel that Messiaen achieves even more in his very intense, beautiful piece. Villette’s piece is more overtly celebratory in tone whereas I have the impression that Messiaen is metaphorically on his knees in humble adoration. His rapt, slow-moving music conveys the eternal mystery behind the text.

Of the two recent compositions Graham Ross’s setting of Ave verum corpus here receives its premiere recording. Francis Grier’s Panis angelicus, though even more recently composed has already received a recording. It was one of a number of pieces written in memory of the late David Trendell and it has previously been recorded by Trendell’s former choir at King’s College, London (review). Grier’s piece includes very taxing soprano and tenor solo roles which Alice Halstead and Lawrence Booth-Clibborn deliver very well

The only piece in the collection that requires an organ accompaniment is Finzi’s Lo, the full, final Sacrifice. This was recorded separately in Norwich Cathedral and Michael Papadopoulos, formerly the Assistant Organist at Clare College, plays the demanding organ partly marvellously – his atmospheric account of the long introduction is memorable and establishes the atmosphere in an ideal fashion. This piece is, I believe, one of Finzi’s finest achievements and the present performance is first rate in every respect.

Indeed, all the performances here are first rate. The choir is flexible and responsive. The programme requires them to master a variety of musical styles and under the assured direction of Graham Ross I don’t think they put a foot wrong. This is another fine and discerningly planned addition to their discography. The documentation is very good, as usual. John Rutter has an expert ear for choral sound and knows the Ely acoustic very well so it’s no surprise that he has captured the sound of the choir expertly in a sympathetic and well-balanced recording.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson

Disc contents
Pange lingua gloriosi – plainchant [2:16]
Josquin DESPREZ (c.1440/55-1521)
Missa Pange Lingua [29:36]
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (c.1548-1611)
Lauda Sion salvatorem [2:27]
Pierre de LA RUE (c.1452-1518)
O salutaris hostia [3:05]
William BYRD (c.1539/40-1623)
Cibavit eos [2:53]
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1925) [3:41]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)
O sacrum convivium (1959) [3:37]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
O sacrum convivium (1937)[4.51]
Francis GRIER (b.1955)
Panis angelicus (2015) [3:27]
Graham ROSS (b.1985)
Ave verum corpus (2009) [3:54]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Lo, the full, final Sacrifice (1946) [14:49]


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