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Set upon the Rood – New Music for Choir and Ancient Instruments
Sir James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Noli Pater [8:16]
John KENNY (b. 1957)
The Deer’s Cry [16:04]
Stuart MacRAE (b. 1976)
Cantate [8:54]
Bill TAYLOR (b 1957)
Crux fidelis [4:59]
Francis GRIER (b 1955)
Cantemus [13:05]
Stevie WISHART (b 1959)
Iste Confessor [3:58]
Stephen BICK (b 1993)
Set upon the Rood [12:58]
Barnaby Brown (triple pipes and aulos); John Kenny (Loughnashade horn and chimes); Patrick Kenny (carnyx and chimes), Bill Taylor (lyre), James Leitch (organ and crotales), Michael How (organ and crotales),
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 29-31 August, 2016, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34154 [68.20]

In Praise of Saint Columba - The Sound World of the Celtic Church
Os mutorum, lux caecorum - c.1340 [3.06]
Loquebar de testimoniis tuis - c.965 [3.09]
River Erne horn duet – improvisation [4.30]
Adiutor laborantium - 13th Century [3.26]
Sanctorum piissime Columba - c.1340 [3.19]
Lauda anima mea Domine - c.965 [1.43]
Noli Pater – music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing [4.53]
Carne solutus pater Columba - c.1340 [4.41]
Amen dico vobis – c.965 [3.23]
Liberesti nos Domine – St. Gallen c.924 [3.24]
Cantemus in omini die – melody from Santiago di Compostela - c.1280]
Altus prosator – music by Barnaby Brown [25.05]
Volens Jhesus linere - c.1340 [3.49]
Laudate Dominum – music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing [3.30]
The Desperate Battle of the Birds - pipe solo by Barnaby Brown [4.30]
Barnaby Brown (triple pipes and lyre); Simon O'Dwyer (medieval Irish horn and bodhrán); Malachy Frame (medieval Irish horn); Liam Crangle (bell and crotal)
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 16-18 July 2013, St. Peter’s Church, Horningsea, Cambridgeshire. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34137 [76.15]

Before considering Set upon the Rood, the new CD from Geoffrey Webber and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, it’s worth revisiting their earlier disc, In Praise of Saint Columba to remind ourselves, as it were, from whence they have come to arrive at their latest release.

In Praise of Saint Columba was a fascinating attempt to recreate some of the music of the Christian church as used in liturgy in the time of the sixth-century Irish saint, Columba through the next few hundred years up to the fourteenth century. The disc was recorded in 2013 but, as we read in the booklet for their new release, the seeds were sown as far back as 2004 when the choir, on tour in Sardinia, sang Adiutor laborantium, a new work by Barnaby Brown in which Brown played a local traditional three-reed pipe, the launeddas. Brown was once a member of the choir, though I’m unclear as to when he was at Cambridge; perhaps prior to 2004. Barnaby Brown has pursued a deep interest in the history and practice of playing traditional pipes and other instruments and his work, allied to Geoffrey Webber’s ever-curious approach to widening the horizons of his choir’s repertoire, eventually found expression in In Praise of Saint Columba. That disc has already been reviewed thoroughly by my colleagues, Gary Higginson and Simon Thompson, so I will confine myself to a few observations.

The disc is certainly one to take the listener out of his or her comfort zone – it certainly did that for me. I freely confess that I’m not usually drawn to medieval music, which I find too spare of texture for my taste. However, when I’ve listened to In Praise of Saint Columba I’ve found myself drawn into the music to an extent that surprised me. What the musicians do, it seems to me, is to carry the listener back across the centuries, taking us back to some of the origins of Western music. They do so in a persuasive and extremely skilled way; the choir’s singing is excellent throughout and I admired greatly the evident virtuosity of the instrumentalists.

Some of the pieces are sung a capella and all of these are done very well. Two of them - Noli Pater and Laudate Dominum – are sung by pairs of unaccompanied solo singers, female voices in the former and male in the latter. Barnaby Brown has based the music for both pieces on Gaelic psalm singing and I was amazed at the virtuosity which is called for as the two vocal lines consistently intertwine. However, it’s the pieces in which the singers are accompanied that really fascinate due to the unaccustomed, primitive sounds of the instruments. The two horns call out balefully in the improvised piece River Erne and whenever he plays Barnaby Brown’s skill on the triple pipes is quite remarkable, as are the sounds he conjures from the instrument – and I speak as someone who normally has a healthy aversion to the sound of the bagpipes.

The centrepiece of the programme is the hymn Altus prosator in which Barnaby Brown has interwoven a number of ancient musical sources. It’s an alphabetic hymn which means that each verse begins with a word that starts with the next letter of the alphabet. In addition there’s a refrain which is sung after every pair of verses. Geoffrey Webber very sensibly varies his vocal forces from verse to verse, including the use of soloists. However, the accompaniment for much of the piece is provided just by a strummed lyre. From 19:26 the horns join in and their sonority is a significant addition to the mix. However, for all the skill and imagination of the performers I have to report that the duration of 25.05 makes for a long listen

As I said at the start, this is a disc that will take many listeners, like me, out of their comfort zone. However, it’s a fascinating and, in the best sense of the word, challenging disc and very well worth hearing in its own right. However, I’d argue that In Praise of Saint Columba is of even greater value as a precursor to the new disc, Set upon the Rood. For this project a number of composers have been invited – or might “challenged” be a better word? – to compose works which employ ancient instruments. This time the net has been cast wider than the Celtic world for the instruments: Stephen Bick’s new piece employs a reconstruction of a Graeco-Roman aulos, which makes a sound akin to a clarinet or saxophone.

James MacMillan deploys old and new instruments in Noli Pater. He uses a longer version of a text heard on the earlier CD. Intriguingly, MacMillan writes for a modern organ – the magnificent new organ in the Merton College Chapel, used to stunning effect – in alliance with the ancient triple pipe. The resulting piece is arresting, moving from a dark subdued opening through to ecstatic dance-like music, where the pipes come into their own, and some huge choral climaxes. This is a highly imaginative response to an ancient text.

The Deer’s Cry includes parts for the Loughnashade horn, carnyx – a kind of bronze trumpet from the Celtic age – chimes and crotales. The text is the ancient text known as St Patrick’s Breastplate which is set in English, Latin and Gaelic. All manner of vocal devices are used including speech, whistling, breathing and, of course, singing. The piece is divided into six parts, helpfully tracked separately. The work is certainly inventive in the way that it uses both the voices and the instruments. However, it’s not music that I can warm to in the slightest and I doubt I shall return to it now that this reviewing assignment is over.

Stuart McRae’s Cantate is the only piece that doesn’t use an ancient text. In his case he has chosen a poem by the seventeenth century poet, Henry Vaughan. For his instrumental support he uses a wire-strung lyre. In addition to the choir he has a separate vocal quintet and, in a nice touch, Geoffrey Webber has invited back five former members of the Gonville and Caius choir for this purpose; two of them were members of the choir when the earlier CD was recorded.

Bill Taylor’s Crux fidelis sets the old hymn for just two singers – a soprano and a baritone – accompanied by a gut-strung lyre. The soloists, Clover Willis and Humphrey Thompson are excellent. Stevie Wishart also contributes a hymn setting. Her Iste Confessor is part of a larger work, Vespers for St Hildegard. The choir is accompanied by a lyre and organ; the instrumental parts are largely improvised.

Like James MacMillan, Francis Grier has set a text that was also heard on the earlier CD. His Cantemus employs the same 8th century Ionan text that was previously heard as Cantemus in omini die. Grier includes a part for a bass Iona triple pipe, which also plays interludes between each stanza of the text. For the verses themselves he uses a variety of different vocal textures, including a number of solo voices. The piece is most interesting and it builds impressively until the last verse which is, frankly, spectacular,

The piece that gives the album its title is by Stephen Bick who is a student at the college and a tenor in the choir. Set upon the Rood is a setting of parts of the old English poem, The Dream of the Rood, which is sung in Bick’s own modern English version. The piece calls for a baritone soloist, accompanied by a lyre – here Bick sings the solo role himself – and for some of the choral passages an aulos is used. I found this a most impressive piece. The extensive opening solo episode is sparsely accompanied by the lyre and the wide-ranging vocal line is compelling. Later, when the choir delivers the words of the Rood the choral writing is extremely assured and very expressive. This is a fine composition and, like everything else on the disc, it’s splendidly performed.
The demands made on the Gonville and Caius choir are very different on each of these discs but in both cases the demands are formidable. I admire greatly the way in which the choir deliver the ancient music, the idiom of which must have been very unfamiliar to them, and the assurance with which the many and varied challenges presented by the contemporary composers are addressed.
Both discs are expertly recorded and the documentation in each case is comprehensive, giving the reader an excellent introduction to the background of all the music concerned.
I’m conscious that collectors don’t have bottomless wallets and also that there’s a limit to the amount of unfamiliar repertoire one might wish to sample. Pressed to a choice I’d suggest that if you only want one of these discs Set upon the Rood should be your investment because it demonstrates vividly how modern composers draw inspiration from the past. The pieces by MacMillan, Grier and Bick are outstanding in their different ways. However, my advice is that you should acquire both discs. They complement each other in so many ways and In Praise of Saint Columba, as well as being fascinating in its own right, will contextualise the later disc for you admirably.

John Quinn

Previous reviews (Columba): Gary Higginson ~ Simon Thompson



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