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Live at the Clifton Festival
The Erebus Ensemble/Tom Williams
rec. 2013-2020
HOXA HS200316 [61:53]

The raison d'être of this CD is defined in the opening paragraph of the liner notes: ‘The Erebus Ensemble has, since its inception, enjoyed devising programmes that combine the musical treasures of the Renaissance period with sacred works by living composers.’ To this end, the present concert provides an ideal example of this aim put into practice. It should be noted that these recordings are assembled from the seven-year period since the Clifton Festival’s founding in 2013.  No exact dates are given for when each track was recorded. All works were performed live in the brutalist Roman Catholic Clifton Cathedral in Bristol.

In the opening track, Arvo Pärt meets St Patrick. The Deer’s Cry is a setting of the 8th and 9th verses of the Irish Lorica or prayer of protection attributed to the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is an attractive number which enjoys a purity of sound governed by simplicity and passion.  It was composed in 2007 for the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland.

Another work by Part is the ‘Magnificat’. The liner notes helpfully explain that this is written in the composer’s self-invented ‘Tintinnabuli’ style. This is a concept that is hard to explain in a sentence: just think church bells, their overtones, soft dissonances, oscillating textures, a touch of minimalism and chant combined. It is a lovely setting of these familiar words.

Whether the legend of angelic guidance is true or not, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a perfectly stated piece of singing. It was composed for Pope Marcellus II who managed to reign for only three weeks and remains Palestrina’s best-known work. The Kyrie and the Gloria capture the tonal balance among the voices required to give an ideal account of this work.

John Shepperd’s beautiful ‘Liber nos, salva nos’ (Set us free, save us) is an impressive example of English Tudor church music. It is written in six parts with the plainsong ‘original’ appearing in the bass and is given a moving performance here.

Three sections of Christopher Tye’s Missa Euge Bone (‘Well Done’) are included. This mass was probably composed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58). Contrariwise, some scholars have suggested that it was the composer’s doctoral submission to Cambridge University presented in 1545. These three extracts present a well-structured recital, which reveal the composer’s skilful use of contrapuntal devices resulting in a wide range of moods. It is a pity that the remaining movements of this Mass could not have been squeezed in: there is certainly room on this CD.

Gregorio Allegri is one of Classic FM’s ‘One Hit Wonders’ - not an appellation I like, but the facts prove its suitability here. Arkiv CD lists more than 80 recordings of the famous ‘Miserere mei’ with other works represented by single CD issues. 

This setting was sung during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Everyone knows that the Papal authorities jealously guarded the score – on pain of excommunication. The powers that be did not notice the teenage Mozart attending the service; after a single hearing, he reputedly jotted the entire work down on manuscript paper. This all may be part of the myth. Originally, this choral work was simply a chant, but subject to comprehensive improvised vocal ornamentation. This skill declined over the years, and the setting we hear today dates to the end of the 18th century, although Erebus have introduced some ‘abbellimenti’ (embellished) improvisation into this present performance. The text derives from Psalm 51.

I have not heard Calais-born Jean L’Heritier ‘Surrexit pastor bonus’ before.  Written during the first half of the 16th century, the music epitomises the Franco-Flemish choral style and offers a studied meditation on the Resurrection of Christ. As the liner notes explain, this is not bombastic or even joyful in mood but is rooted in a deeply thoughtful minor mode, which is explored through a wide variety of choral devises, including close harmonies and dense textures. It is my ‘big discovery’ on this CD.

The CD concludes with two wonderful pieces by John Tavener. The first is a delicious setting of ‘The Lamb’, which is a poem published in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was composed in 1982. The music is characterised by its relative simplicity and relaxed pace. The magical stillness is enhanced by gentle dissonances and a subtle balance between monody and harmony. Equally haunting is Tavener’s setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Both works create a sense of the numinous, an often-forgotten part of religious experience.

The liner notes are by Erebus’s Director, Tom Williams and provide a detailed introduction to the composers and their music. The only thing missing (typically) are the dates of composition. I have included them, where known, in the track listing, as I feel that this information is important. The texts of all the works are provided, along with an English translation where appropriate. I could find no website for the record company: I understand that this is an ongoing desideratum.

Finally, I wondered about the name of the ensemble. Readers will recall the passage in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where Lorenzo says:

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
Mark the music.”

Those readers who enjoyed a now rare classical education will recall that Erebus held two meanings: he was the primeval god of darkness, the son of Chaos, and later the name was identified with Hades, where the spirits waited for judgement. I do wonder how these gloomy thoughts behind the ensemble’s name mirror the lovely performances of these varied works.

John France

Contents
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935) The Deer’s Cry (2007) [4:38]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Kyrie [4:10]; Gloria from Missa Papae Marcelli c.1562) [5:15]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558) Libera Nos I (c.1540s) [3:24]
Christopher TYE (c.1505-1573) Sanctus [3:41]; Benedictus [2:35]; Agnus Dei from Missa Euge Bone (c.1545) [4:42]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (c.1582-1652) Miserere mei (c.1630s) [12:06]
Jean l’HERITIER (1480-1551) Surrexit pastor bonus (?) [5:53]
Arvo PÄRT Magnificat (1989) [7:40]
John TAVENER (1944-2013) The Lamb (1982) [3:43]; The Lord’s Prayer (1999) [3:23]



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