Reformation 1517-2017 Martin LUTHER (1483-1546)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott [0:50] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80 (arr. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach) [24:36] Johann CRUGER (1598-1662)
Nun danket alle Gott [0:37] Johann Sebastian BACH
Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79 [11:10] Georg NEUMARK (1621-1681)
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten [0:47] Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, MVW A 7 [11:48] Martin LUTHER
Mit Freud und Freud ich fahr dahin [0:5] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Warum ist das Licht gegeben? Op 74 No 1 [10:31] William CROFT (1678-1727)
O God, our help in ages past [0:31] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Lord, thou hast been our refuge [8:04]
Mary Bevan (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Neal Davies (bass)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
rec. 2017, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902265 [73:25]
Most of Graham Ross’s recordings with his Clare College Choir have been to celebrate specific dates in the church year, such as his most recent release for the feast of Corpus Christi. However, this one commemorates a huge historical event that has had epochal significance for the wing of western Christianity in which Clare finds itself: namely the Protestant Reformation, the 500th anniversary we commemorate in 2017.
Typically for Ross, he has assembled a programme that traces the reformation from its beginnings (with chorales by Luther himself and his German followers) through to the greatest musical Lutheran in history (Bach, of course), right down to the influence of Luther’s faith and ideas on 20th century British church composers, specifically Vaughan Williams’ great motet Lord, thou hast been our refuge. It’s a thoughtful and intelligent mix, and one where, in an unusual treat, we also hear the college’s ensemble of Baroque musicians, which spice up the Bach cantatas very pleasantly.
Those Bach cantatas sound marvellously upbeat. Ross gives us the version of Ein feste Burg that contains trumpets and drums in Wilhelm Friedemann’s orchestration and, while it might be of dubious authenticity, I’m always quietly pleased when I see it’s on the menu because it’s much more celebratory than the original, with even more of Bach’s joyous ebullience shining through in the extra brass and percussion. Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild sounds similarly splendid, though here it is the horns who really take the credit, sailing majestically out over the main textures and sounding magnificent as they do so. No information is given in the booklet note about Clare Baroque, so I don’t know whether they are students or professionals, whether they’re a scratch band for this disc or whether they exist throughout the year. Either way, they’re very good.
The soloists are very good too. Neal Davies blusters his way through his (rather ungrateful) arias, while Mary Bevan and Robin Blaze pour down much needed balm. Nicholas Mulroy sounds a little hooty for my taste, but he contributes distinctive colour.
The choir sing very well in the Bach; though, if I was looking to criticise, I’d say they sound a little less grounded than in their incarnations on other discs, with the tenors and basses, in particular, sounding noticeably like young singers. That carries advantages, of course, but it means that there is a bit less depth to the sound, something you particularly notice in the Bach because it is accompanied by the orchestra.
That trait bothered me a lot less elsewhere on the disc, however, either because it was less of an issue or my ear had tuned into it better. Particularly lovely is Mendelssohn’s Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, a Bach-style cantata that clearly shows how Mendelssohn had assimilated the older Master’s style, and it’s done very convincingly here.
Those original chorales are sung with their original syncopations, which makes them sound even more appealing and (whisper it!) less churchy. It also reminds you of Luther’s original purpose, which was to purloin earthy, popular tunes for the worship of God, and Ein Feste Burg, as performed here, sounds like it has skipped straight out of the dance hall.
However, the two things I enjoyed the most were the two major unaccompanied pieces. Brahms’ Warum ist das Licht gegeben? begins with keening, beseeching uncertainty and moves powerfully through to some sort of resolution. Vaughan Williams’ treatment of Psalm 90 sounds very beautiful, and right up the street of what this choir has recorded in their other Harmonia Mundi series. You can also hear Bach’s influence in the way RVW integrates the chorale theme into the wider texture of the more elaborate things that the choir is doing. It’s a listen that is betimes moving and thrilling, and makes you reflect afresh on just how widespread the influence of Bach was.
Unlike the other Reformation discs I’ve heard this year, this one dares to trace Luther’s influence right up to the 20th century, and as such is to be valued alongside the brilliant but more historical approach of Vox Luminis, though that disc still wins my Reformation prize for the year so far.
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