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O Gemma Clarissima - Music in Praise of St. Catharine
The Choirs of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge/Edward Wickham
rec. 2018/19, Chapel of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge
RESONUS RES10246 [72.02]

How apt that the joint choirs of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge should produce a CD of music in honour of their patron saint. The pieces chosen on this generously filled disc, are intriguing and mostly not well known covering the period from the late fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth. Some of the leading names are here but also several which are rarely come across like Pierre Vermont.

St. Catharine was a very popular saint in the medieval period up to the Reformation with sixty-two medieval English churches dedicated to her in the middle ages. She is known as St. Catherine of Alexandria and her emblem is the famous Catherine wheel. Her feast day is November 25th. She is thought to have lived in the 4th Century.

The disc comes with an essay ‘The Story and Cult of St. Katherine’ by Miranda Griffin, and another essay ‘A note on the music’ by conductor Edward Wickham and all of the texts, well translated. Incidentally the spelling of Catharine, Catherine or Katherine seems to be interchangeable. The college was founded in 1473 by Robert Woodlark as ‘Katherine Hall’ but the present, unusual spelling appeared from only 1860. The saint is, amongst other things the patron saint of scholars and also unmarried women, so she was well chosen. The plainchant and to some extent the motets tell something of her life and importance and were inspired by her entry in ‘The Golden Legend’ a vast tome by Jacobus de Voragine compiled c.1260.

Edward Wickham of course is no stranger to this early repertoire; you will know his recordings with The Clerks’ Group of composers like Ockeghem. Some of those CDs date back to his younger days, in the early 90’s but in 2003 he was able to devote his attentions more to choral training and to the choirs at St. Catherine’s. The SATB choir is long established but the Girls’ choir, the first in a Cambridge college was not founded until 2008.

An especially nice touch is that several of the motets are preceded by a brief verse of a plainchant on which the motet is based and this chant is generally sung by the girl’s voices with almost no break into the polyphony. Some chants are well known elsewhere, so for example Senfl's Ave Katherina martir uses the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ melody and the anonymous (I feel late 15th Century) Katherinae collaudemus/Fulta fide Katherina uses the ‘Pange lingua’ plainsong.

It’s probably an obvious comment but the sound quality is fresh, open and well balanced and the voices lack obtrusive vibrato. Sometimes, in the lower voices especially, the tone can be unfocused but there are few problems with tuning. In other words they are a typical, high quality college choir, well drilled and clear in diction and precise with vowels.

Which pieces stand out? It has to be first the vast motet from the Eton Choirbook Gaude rose sine spina by Fawkyner (given here as Richard but some sources say John). I wonder if Edward Wickham first came across this magnificent work on an LP back in the late 60’s on the Argo label, as I did, performed by the much lamented, now no more, Choir of All Saint’s Margaret Street. That was performed with boys on the top line of course. This performance is vigorous and full of the passion of youth. In truth the tempo is quite quick, indeed they take over a minute off the recording by The Choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford on Avie made in 2009 and as a consequence some of the rhythmic detail, especially in the lower parts, is not always clear. Nevertheless I left this performance feeling uplifted and impressed by the ambition of the choir and their virtuosity.

Any music by Nicolas Gombert is worth hearing. His canonic Virgo sancta Katherina is for the girls' voices only, divided I think into four parts and is a most delicious piece, deliciously performed. As is the brief motet by Willaert O gemma clarissima the text of which not only gives the CD its name but also sums up the whole project ‘O brightest of jewels/Catharine most holy virgin/Most elegant lily/And mirror of women;/We pray that by your merits/ We may delight in the joys of heaven’.

The booklet cover is adorned with part of a painting of St. Catharine, now to be seen in Madrid, by the great Caravaggio.

Gary Higginson

Jacob REGNART (c.1540/45-1599) Katherina martir [3.45]
Ludwig SENFL (c.1488-1543) Ave Katherina martir/Costi regis [4.59]
Adrian WILLAERT (c.1480-1562) O gemma clarissima [2.43]
Chant: Ave virginum gemma [1.06]
Jean MOUTON (before 1459-1522) Ave virginum gemma [5.04]
Chant: Virgo sancta Katherina [0.23]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560) Virgo sancta Katherina (2.58]
Chant: Virgo flagellator [2.18]
Pierre VERMONT (c.1495-1532) Virgo flagellator [5.30]
ANON; (Annaberg Choirbook early 16th Cent) Katherinae collaudemus/Fulta fide Katherina [5.38]
CHANT: Nobilis et pulcra [1.21]
Walter FRYE (fl.c 1460-1474) Kyrie ‘Deus creator omnium’ from Missa Nobilis et pulcra [7.19]
CHANT: Inclita sancte virginis Catherinae [1.06]
JACQUET DE MANTUA (1483-1559) Inclita sancte virginis Catherinae [4.25]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Inclytae sanctae virginis Catherinae [2.37]
ANON (Copenhagen early 16th Cent) Ave virgo Katharina [4.36]
CHANT : Passionem gloriose [0.40]
Richard FAWKYNER (fl.c.1480) Gaude rose sine spina [15.26]

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