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O lux beata Trinitas – Music for Trinity
Eleanor Carter, Nicholas Morris (organ)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
rec. 2017, Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent and Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, UK
*First recordings
Texts included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902270 [74:55]

This is the ninth release in the series of recordings made for Harmonia Mundi by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and Graham Ross, each one focussing on music for a particular season in the Christian Church’s year. I infer that it’s also the last, since in his notes Ross speaks of the series’ progression from Advent to Trinity Sunday, “the final feast day of the liturgical calendar”. I’ve followed the series with great interest and I’ve both enjoyed and admired what I’ve heard – links to reviews of the preceding volumes are given at the end of this review.

The programme for this latest release has been designed with the care and thought that has typified the previous instalments. This particular programme is divided into five sections – Praise and Celebration; The Trisagion; Prayers; Contemplation; Glory – and each is introduced by a setting of the Russian Orthodox Cherubic Hymn, which is sung at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy. It’s part of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

The Praise and Celebration section begins with Grechaninov’s serene and spacious setting of the Cherubic Hymn. Immediately, the listener is aware of two things: the disciplined and highly accomplished singing of the choir and the lovely, resonant acoustic of the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral. Producer/engineer John Rutter is very familiar with this acoustic because he conducted several recordings there with his Cambridge Singers a few decades ago – for his own Collegium label – and, unsurprisingly, he’s taken the Clare College choir back there for several of the sessions in this Harmonia Mundi series. I think I’m right in saying that all the unaccompanied items on this programme were set down there. It’s a lovely venue for a cappella choral music: the resonance is warm but not excessive and it helps this choir make a lovely sound. There follows a very good performance of Britten’s Te Deum, which will have been recorded in the Chapel of Tonbridge School to take advantage of the fine Marcussen organ. Here I was impressed by the lovely warm tone of soprano soloist, Rachel Haworth. There are important parts for two soprano soloists in Graham Ross’s Duo Seraphim. Holly Hunt and Jessica Kinney, the Seraphim in question, carol most effectively above their colleagues in the choir. In this interesting and clearly vocally challenging piece Ross offers some arresting choral textures. Stanford’s forthright setting of Psalm 150 brings the first section to an affirmative end.

The second segment, The Trisagion, is prefaced by Pavel Česnokov’s response to the text of the Cherubic Hymn. Long, expressive lines characterise the setting and there’s considerable fervour in both the music and Clare’s performance of it. Stainer was only 18 when he composed his anthem I saw the Lord and in the vigorous, dramatic opening section the fervour of youth is well to the fore. My goodness, the Clare College singers really get hold of this part of the piece. Later, the section beginning ‘O Trinity! O Unity!’ is rather more conventionally Victorian and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who suggested that the piece rather goes off the boil. However, the sheer conviction of the performance which this anthem receives disarms criticism. It’s an enormous stylistic leap from Stainer to James MacMillan’s music. The Sanctus from his Mass begins with an amazing crescendo and it’s expertly managed here. The music is very intense and dramatic – you can tell that it was conceived for the vast space of Westminster Cathedral. The Tonbridge organ and the acoustic of the chapel there do justice to the music.

Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Cherubic Hymn is the best-known of his four settings of this text.
It introduces the section of the programme given over to Prayers. John Sheppard’s two settings of Libera nos, both in seven parts, have the cantus firmus somewhat unusually in the bass line. Above that line the six upper voices weave a wonderfully glowing tapestry of sound. The Clare College choir make a gorgeous sound here, the Ely acoustic adding a halo to their tone. Byrd’s six-part motet is also very well done.

Rachmaninov’s version of the Cherubic Hymn, from his Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Op 31, gets the Contemplation element of the programme under way. In this performance the Clare singers make a fine, full-throated sound in the swifter second part of the piece while the slow, contemplative passages are beautifully calibrated. The programme has already included one new piece by a present-day Clare composer; now we hear another. Joshua Pacey is a recent alumnus of the college and a composition student of Graham Ross who commissioned him to write Tres sunt, which was premiered in 2017. It’s for unaccompanied choir with important solo roles for a soprano and a baritone – here Eleanor Smith and Toby Matimong are the accomplished singers. The music is slow and reflective. I liked this piece a lot, feeling that it was very effectively imagined for the voices.

To begin the Glory section of the programme we hear Glinka’s setting of the Cherubic Hymn. This is by some distance the earliest of the Russian settings included here, dating from 1837. Whilst acknowledging Glinka’s pioneering role in nineteenth-century Russian music, I found this piece a bit conventional in comparison to the rest of the programme. That’s certainly not a charge that could be levelled against Gabriel Jackson. His Hymn to the Trinity (Honor, Virtus, et Potestas), which dates from 2000, is a choice example of his ability to imagine light-suffused choral textures. The choir makes a fine job of it, not least the quartet of solo female singers who feature in the central section of the piece. And “light suffused” also describes Charles Wood’s double-choir anthem Hail, gladdening light. This is ideally placed as an exciting and joyful conclusion to this programme. Rather unusually, Graham Ross lets us hear the plagal cadential ‘Amen’ which is often omitted, perhaps, as he says, because it’s considered a bit of an anti-climax. True, the ‘Amen’ ends the piece in an unexpectedly calm fashion but I think he made the right call. This ‘Amen’ is an appropriate way to conclude such a carefully constructed programme and brings the listener a sense of completion.

The performances and music in this programme are excellent. So, too, is the recorded sound. The documentation, including an excellent essay by Graham Ross, is also very good. My only quibble about the documentation is that with the exception of the Cherubic Hymn no English translations are given – and it would have been helpful to have a transliterated version of the Russian text of the Cherubic Hymn.

This disc is a distinguished conclusion to what has been a very fine series. Though this sequence of recordings has come to a natural conclusion I hope that the partnership between the outstanding Clare College choir and Harmonia Mundi will continue.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)

Previous releases in this series
Music for Advent
Music for Christmas
Music for Epiphany
Music for Passiontide
Music for Easter
Music for Ascensiontide and Pentecost
Music for Corpus Christi
Music for All Saints and All Souls

Aleksandr Tikhonovich GRECHANINOV (1864-1956)
Heruvimskaya pes˝ (Cherubic Hymn), Op.29
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Festival Te Deum, Op.32
Graham ROSS (b. 1985)
Duo Seraphim*
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Laudate Dominum, Psalm 150
Pavel Grigor’evic ČESNOKOV (1877-1944)
Heruvimskaya pes˝ (Cherubic Hymn), Op.29/5
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
I saw the Lord
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Sanctus and Benedictus (from The Mass)
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Heruvimskaya pes˝ (Cherubic Hymn), in F
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558)
Libera nos, salva nos I & II
William BYRD (c.1543-1623)
O lux beata Trinitas
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Heruvimskaya pes˝ (Cherubic Hymn), Op.31/8
Joshua PACEY (b.1995)
Tres sunt*
Mikhail IVANOVICH GLINKA (1804-1857)
Heruvimskaya pes˝ (Cherubic Hymn), Op.31/11
Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962)
Hymn to the Trinity (Honor, Virtus, et Potestas)
Charles WOOD (1866-1926)
Hail, gladdening light


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