Sunday 22 December 2013

Veni Emmanuel - music for Advent

Veni Emmanuel - Choir of Clare College, Cambrdige - HMU 907579
This disc of music for Advent, Veni Emmanuel, from Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, is centred on the great O Anthems,with the plainchant interspersed with motets whose themes relate to the text of the anthems. The result is a rather striking sequence for Advent, with music by William Byrd, Herbert Howells, Roderick Williams, Michael Praetorius, John Sheppard, John Rutter, J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Peter Warlock, John Tavener and Sergei Rachmaninov.

They open with the plainchant hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel whose words paraphrase the texts of the O Antiphons. The chant is sung with firm flexibility by the whole choir. They follow this with a vigorous and flowing account of William Byrd's Vigilate from his 1589 Cantiones Sacrae, making quite a big sound, very much a choral performance, but with a great rhythmic feel. The result is rather thrilling.

The women then give a supple performance of the first O Antiphon, O Sapientia. The sentiments in the antiphon are echoed in Herbert Howells' anthem The fear of the Lord, written for Clare College in 1976, when John Rutter was the Director of Music. It is a big piece, starting with a striking organ introduction. The choir brings out Howells' colourful harmonies, the rich texture being giving plenty of spicy organ colour.

The men sing the O Adonai and this is followed by Roderick Williams O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel which uses the same text and was written in 1997. It opens with a haunting soprano solo (Gabrielle Haigh), full of awkward but evocative intervals, this develops into a soprano texture which flows in the background over the rest of the choir who sing more homophonic chant, to which is added a dramatic tenor solo (Stefan Kennedy). It is a fascinating and effective piece, with a lovely use of spacial effects and different textures.

The antiphon O Radix Jesse, sung by the whole choir, is followed by Michael Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros entsprungen in an arrangement by the Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom. The carol again echoes the sentiments of the antiphon. Standstrom's arrangement places the Praetorius sung slowly by four soloists (Lois Salem, Abigail Gostick, Stefan Kennedy and Jack Lawrence-Jones) over a humming atmosphere from the choir to create something rather magical.

The women sing the antiphon, O Clavis David, with John Sheppard's motet Audivi vocem de caelo also sung only by upper voices. The Sheppard alternates chant and polyphony, with the polyphony creating a lovely flowing texture and having a surprisingly modern feel.

O Oriens is sung by the men, and followed by three items all related to the idea of light and the morning star. John Rutter's Hymn to the Creator of Light is a large-scale double choir anthem which Rutter wrote for the dedication of Gloucester Cathedral's Howells memorial window in 1993. A big piece, lasting over seven minutes it is brilliantly dramatic, with the choir giving us some stunning climaxes and radiant tone. There is a bright edge to Rutter's harmonic language here which is rather appealing. They follow this with Bach's simple chorale Wich shcoe leuchtete der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star), which is quoted in the Mendelssohn which follows. The perform two items from Mendelssohn's unfinished oratorio Christus, a vigorous trio for the Wise Men, Say, where is He born (sung by Stefan Kennedy, Jack Lawrence-Jones and Nicholas Mogg) then a very Bach-inspired large scale chorus There shall a star from Jacob which finishes with the Bach chorale.

Both men and women sing the antiphon, O Rex Gentium, followed by a pair of works with related texts, Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down and I sing of a maiden by the choir's director, Graham Ross. The Warlock is given a beautiful, fine grained performance. Ross's piece was premiered in 2010 and is a rather imaginative deconstruction of the tune, with something of a modernist edge.

The women sing the final O Antiphon, O Emmanuel and the choir follow it with John Tavener's God is with us using a text based in the antiphon. It was written in 1987 for Winchester Cathedral and combines a vigorous bass solo (Nicholas Mogg), with the chorus alternating chant and Tavener's familiar widely space diatonic harmony. I have to confess that I did find that the solo was rather too closely recorded for comfort, but the whole was very striking particularly the thrilling organ entry at the end.

There is one final antiphon, O Virgo virginum which was often added to the seven O Antiphons and is here sung by the whole choir, leading to Rachmaninov's setting of the Angelic Salutation Bogoroditse Dyevo from his All Night-Vigil (Vespers). The choir sing this with great beauty of tone, starting very hushed, bringing to the work clarity and power.  Then follows Herbert Howells Magnificat from his setting for Gloucester Cathedral. Starting with a lovely flexible solo for just women's voices and organ, the piece develops into something rich and thoughtful.

The recital closes with the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel arranged by Graham Ross, bringing the sequence full circle.

There is a fine article by Graham Ross in the Cd booklet which highlights the links between the works and thought which went into the programming. There are full texts and translations.

This is a highly imaginative programme which combines a wide variety of pieces into a thoughtful whole. All showcased superbly by the choir.

Plainchant - Veni, veni Emmanuel [0.52]
William Byrd (c1539 - 1623) - Vigilate [4.04]
Plainchant - O Sapientia [0.54]
Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983) - The fear of the Lord [5.34]
Plainchant - O Adonai [0.59]
Roderick Williams (born 1965) - O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel [6.20]
Plainchant - O Radix Jesse [0.55]
Michael Praetorus (c1571-1621) arr Jan Sandstrom (born 1954) - Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [4.03]
Plainchant - O Clavis David [1.00]
John Sheppard (c1515-1558) - Audivi vocem de caelo [3.49]
Plainchant - O Oriens [0.50]
John Rutter (born 1945) - Hymn to the Creator of Light [7.34]
JS Bach (1685 - 1750) - Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern BWV436 [1.33]
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847) - Say, where is He born; There shall a star from Jacob (Christus) [6.34]
Plainchant - O Rex Gentium [0.52]
Peter Warlock (1894 - 1930) - Bethlehem Down [4.20]
Graham Ross (born 1985) - I sing of a maiden [3.55]
Plainchant - O Emmanuel [0.48]
John Tavener (1944 - 2013) - God is with us [5.09]
Plainchant - O Virgo virginum [1.06]
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) - Borogoditse Dyevo (All-Night Vigil, Op.37, No.6) [2.42]
Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983) _Magnificat (Gloucester Service) [6.41]
Trad. arr Graham Ross (born 1985) - O Come, O come, Emmanuel [5.07]
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Nicolas Haigh (organ)
Graham Ross (director)
Recorded March 2012 in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London and April 2012 in St. Albans Cathedral.

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