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The service of Compline has inspired many incredibly beautiful compositions and this collection gathers together eighteen of the many lovely a cappella choral motets written to adorn the evening worship of the church.
Composers include Byrd, Guerrero, Rachmaninov and Sheppard, alongside such less well-known masterworks as Rheinberger’s Abendlied and the four great Marian motets of Victoria.
Lighten our Darkness sees John Rutter and his Cambridge Singers return to the austere surrounds and sumptuous acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, where many of their classic recordings from the 1980s and early 1990s were recorded.
Compline is believed to have originated with the Rule of St Benedict in the early sixth century, though some scholars believe it to be even older. In England it was observed during the Middle Ages using Sarum chants (i.e. from Salisbury, a medieval centre of church music) rather than their related continental Gregorian counterparts, but it was suppressed at the Reformation. This was partly because of its ‘Catholic’ nature including homage to the Virgin Mary, and partly because monastic communities were themselves suppressed. Elements of Compline were, however, incorporated into Anglican Evensong, notably the Responses and Nunc dimittis. In the 1928 revision (never adopted) of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an English version of Compline was included, and in 1929 the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society published this complete with its appropriate chants, only to be threatened with legal action by the Church Commissioners, the stated reason being alleged breach of Crown Copyright but the possible underlying one being a suspicion of Catholic observances reappearing in Anglican worship. Since then, controversy having died down, Compline, with its unique sense of poetry and peace, has become a cherished part of Anglican worship, both for private devotion and as a part of the spiritual life of religious and collegiate communities.
From 1543 Sheppard was choirmaster at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he wrote an impressive body of mainly Latin church music. This simple, restrained setting of a Compline text would have been intended for Sheppard’s own choir, its top part probably sung by adult altos, the choristers presumably being in bed.
Libera nos, salva nos
This resplendent piece with high, soaring sopranos is more characteristic of Sheppard’s style, which has been described as a musical counterpart to English Perpendicular architecture. Like most sacred polyphony of this period, the music is built on a Gregorian chant—heard, in this case, measured out in slow notes in the bass part.
Lassus, the most prolific and cosmopolitan composer of the Renaissance, was successively choirmaster at the church of St John Lateran in Rome and maestro di cappella at the Bavarian court in Munich, greatly admired throughout Europe for his compositional mastery. Iustorum animae, first published in a collection of Lassus’s motets in 1582, is of an exceptional beauty and tranquillity, unusual in that it is freely composed, not based on any pre-existing chant.
Handl, sometimes known as Gallus, held a number of church and court posts in central Europe, writing a substantial and much-admired body of church music. This mellifluous Lord’s Prayer setting with its serenely celestial Amen is explicitly designated by the composer for two antiphonal choirs, one of high voices, the other low. In this recording they are heard on the left and right respectively, though the intended separation was vertical, with the angelic high voices symbolically placed in a high gallery.
O Lord, the Maker of all things
The plain, unadorned texture of this setting of one of the earliest vernacular English prayers is typical of the austere, devout style of the immediately post-Reformation anthem. The piece is found in the sixteenth-century choir books of a number of cathedrals, so it was evidently popular, but its ascription to the shadowy William Mundy, of whom little is known, cannot be confirmed.
Visita, quaesumus Domine
This inexplicably neglected little piece must be one of the loveliest and most affecting Byrd ever wrote. It comes from the 1605 Gradualia (the first of two collections of Byrd’s motets for the seasons and observances of the liturgical year), and presents an unexpectedly serene, gentle aspect of his musical personality. In a texture of magical transparency, without basses, he paints a sound picture of guardian angels hovering overhead, akin in atmosphere to the peace and radiance of a Raphael Nativity. The office of Compline can seldom have been so sensitively and evocatively adorned.
For most of his career Rheinberger was Kapellmeister to the Bavarian court, as Lassus had once been. Of his large body of compositions only the organ music is widely performed today, but the best of his choral work is also of high quality. Bleib bei uns is one of a set of three sacred pieces published in 1873, dedicated to a choral society in Berlin. As with the church music of his younger contemporary Stanford, academic mastery and Romantic expressiveness stand in satisfying equilibrium.
O Christ who art the light and day
On the face of it, this rather uncharacteristic Byrd hymn setting (sung here in a fine translation by R. R. Terry, the first organist of Westminster Cathedral) might appear to be a compositional exercise: written in a plain note-against-note style, the Gregorian hymn melody, after being stated alone, works its way up, verse by verse, from the bottom voice to the top. What transforms it into something more is the beauty of the melody itself and the often subtly unexpected harmonies with which Byrd clothes it.
O gladsome light
The text of this piece is one of the earliest of all Christian hymns, described by St Basil in the fourth century as old and anonymous. It became known as ‘the candle-lighting hymn’ because it was sung at Vespers as candles were lit to symbolise Christ as the light of the world. Robert Bridges’ metrical, rhymed translation (the original Greek hymn was not metrical or in rhyme) appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906. It was probably that hymnal’s musical editor, Vaughan Williams, who wedded the text to the Louis Bourgeois psalm-tune in Claude Goudimel’s harmonization of 1551.
Te lucis ante terminum
This Gregorian hymn is sometimes sung at Compline as an alternative to Christe, qui lux es et dies. Tallis’s setting, which was first published in the joint Tallis-Byrd Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, keeps the melody in the top voice with some gentle and unobtrusive elaboration in the voices beneath it.
Alma redemptoris mater
The four antiphons of the Virgin Mary—Alma redemptoris mater, Ave regina caelorum, Regina caeli laetare and Salve regina—have been described as ‘among the most beautiful creations of the late Middle Ages’ (Apel, Gregorian Chant, p. 404).They were probably written (both the texts and their chants) between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the anonymous work of monks or nuns in whose communities they adorned the daily worship and marked out the times and seasons. Despite being called antiphons, these four unusually extended and melodious chants were not sung in conjunction with psalms or canticles but were used to bring the nightly offices of Vespers and Compline to a close. The Alma was sung from Advent to Candlemas, the Ave regina caelorum from Candlemas to Holy Week, Regina caeli laetare from the Eve of Easter Day to the week after after Pentecost, and the Salve regina from then till Advent.
The occasion for Victoria’s elaborate and finely-wrought settings for double choir is not known, but as a revered composer of sacred music active in Rome in the 1570s and 80s when they were published, he would have had comparatively lavish choral resources available to him. Although each of the four antiphon settings is proper to a different season, they can be considered as an integral set, showing features in common beyond the obvious one of their double-choir layout, notably their pervasive use of the Gregorian chants belonging to the texts, fragments of which are clearly to be heard, generally in distinct slow notes, scattered among the eight voice parts throughout all four pieces.
Each antiphon setting has, however, a distinct character, stemming from its text and seasonal use: the Alma redemptoris mater is gentle, flowing and feminine, Ave regina caelorum more solid and joyful, with a dance-like triple-time section to the words ‘Gaude, gaude gloriosa’. Regina caeli laetare, in keeping with the Easter season, is yet more joyfully exuberant and, without its text, could easily be an instrumental dance by Giovanni Gabrieli or Praetorius—giving the lie to the misperception of Victoria as an exclusively sombre, penitential composer rooted in the past. The last of the set, Salve regina, intense and prayerful in mood, is the most extended and impressive of the four, deploying its two choirs with telling economy: of its 201 bars, only 58 have both choirs singing together, making the effect seem all the more rich and passionate.
During his lifetime and for at least 200 years after his death, Guerrero was one of the most widely published and performed vocal composers of the Spanish Renaissance, second only to Victoria in reputation. From 1551 till his death he worked at Seville Cathedral, but also travelled widely. Ave Maria, published in 1574, is among the most serene and beautiful of his 150 or so motets, similar in mood to the better-known Ave virgo sanctissima. Like the Victoria antiphons, it is for double choir and based on a Gregorian chant—the Ave Maria chant was, moreover, familiar to most Renaissance listeners. Its first few notes are heard at the outset of the motet marked out in slow notes by the Choir 2 tenor, echoed in canon by soprano. Although the chant provided a point of reference for listeners (as did the Lutheran chorales found throughout Bach’s church and organ music), the texture woven around it is entirely Guerrero’s own, with a characteristic sense of gracefulness spun out over a leisurely time span.
This much-loved setting of the Russian Orthodox version of the Ave Maria text is No 6 of the fifteen pieces making up Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, written in 1915 and proper to the close of Vespers on Easter Eve. Despite a flavour of Russian chant, the music is all Rachmaninov’s own (he admitted to using ‘counterfeit chants’ in several numbers of the Vigil) and it is quite typical of him in its lyrical resonance and fervent expressive depth.
In manus tuas
Like Visita, quaesumus Domine, this extraordinarily tender and graceful little motet was first published in the 1605 Gradualia. Its seraphic mood and transparency of texture are not dissimilar, despite the inclusion of basses in In manus tuas. In the final pages, Byrd adds a heart-melting setting of the Marian prayer ‘Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis’, setting the seal on the close-of-day atmosphere of the piece.
In manus tuas
Using the same text as Byrd but without the Marian addition, Sheppard, like Byrd, commends our spirits to God's keeping as we prepare to sleep. The music, closely related to that of the In pace with which this recording opens, brings us full circle to a sense of that particular tranquillity which belongs to the timeless spiritual realm.
Collegium Records © 2006
Some of the motets are settings of Latin Compline texts (In pace, Visita, quaesumus Domine,Te lucis ante terminum and In manus tuas), others just have a more general appropriateness to evening. The four monumental antiphon settings for double choir by Victoria form the centrepiece of the motets album: their texts and the basis of their music are the four Antiphons of the Virgin Mary, sung in seasonal alternation at the close of Compline.
The Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, where this recording was made, was in all probability the place where the monks of Ely sang Compline before the Reformation; its magnificent acoustics and architectural splendour and grace continue to make it the perfect setting for Compline today.
John Rutter © 2006