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Out of darkness

Music from Lent to Trinity
Jesus College Choir Cambridge, Mark Williams (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2014
Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: February 2015
Total duration: 75 minutes 45 seconds

Mark Williams and the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge return to complete the liturgical year with this new collection of music taking us from Lent through to Trinity. The journey began with their 2012 release ‘Journey into Light’, which charted Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas.


'Spanning Ash Wednesday to Trinity and complementing an earlier release covering Advent to Candlemas, there are works here for Anglican aficionados, all interpreted by Williams with a simplicity that invites continued listening. If the boys' voices in unison sometimes lack total precision, they are always musical. Organ accompaniments are slick and colourful from both players' (Choir & Organ)» More

'Fresh, engaging performances of works spanning the church year, from a choir moving swiftly up the Oxbridge pecking order. The Rorem and MacMillan pieces get especially fine performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The sequence has been carefully thought through here and embraces sufficient variety of styles and texture—some with organ accompaniment, some without—to sustain the disc’s 75 minutes' (The Telegraph)» More

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This disc complements the Choir’s albums Journey into Light which followed the Church’s year from Advent to Candlemas. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent (tracks 1 & 2) before moving into Passiontide (tracks 3, 4, 5), the last supper and Good Friday. From this darkness, weemerge into the light of the Resurrection at Easter (tracks 6, 7, 8) and the Feast of the Ascension (tracks 9, 10). The visit of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (tracks 11, 12, 13, 14) has inspired countless sacred choral works, and the final feast of the Church’s year—Trinity (tracks 16, 17)—is celebrated here with two very contrasting pieces by John Sheppard and John Stainer.

Byrd’s predicament as a Roman Catholic surviving in the alien environment of the late 16th century is roughly equivalent to that of Shostakovich working within the Soviet Union. As Joseph Kerman has written, we may well imagine that Byrd was expressing through his religious music 'prayers, exhortations and protests on behalf of the English Roman Catholic community'. Byrd’s Cunctis Diebus, a six-part work from the 1591 collection of Cantiones Sacrae, is a setting of words paraphrased from the book of Job—inevitably dark, though the final section suggests redemption rather than resignation. Kerman has speculated that this piece may have been planned as a companion work to Infelix ego, but wonders what can have been 'the attraction of these deathly texts to a young composer who in the later 1570’s was just feeling out his true powers …'

In Remember not, Lord, our offences, a ‘full’ anthem for SSATB dating from around 1680, Purcell sets a text from the 1544 Litany. The piece begins and ends homophonically but as the simple diatonic phrase at 'neither take thouvengeance' is undermined by the rising 5-note chromatic phrase introduced at 'spare us, good Lord', tension builds towards a powerfulclimax. Beginning and ending in calm supplication, this anthem encompasses a surprisingly wide emotional range in its three minutes’ duration.

Edward Bairstow made important contributions to the Anglican church tradition as organist of Wigan and Leeds Parish Churches, then of York Minster from 1913 until his death. He was knighted in 1932. A typically outspoken Yorkshireman, he remained loyal to his roots, shunning an approach from Westminster Abbey in 1928. In 1942 he set words selected from The Lamentations of Jeremiah by the Dean of York, the Very Reverend E. M. Milner-White, and described his composition: 'It is just a few chants of irregular pattern, and a refrain; but it is effective'. Actually the piece is rathermore than this characteristically terse summary would suggest—a straightforward but eloquent setting of the words, its simplicity quite different from Bairstow’s earlier style. Bairstow was a gifted teacher, his duties in this sphere occupying much of his time, but he did compose a fairly modest amount of church music of enduring quality, including about thirty anthems.

Fernand Laloux came to England in 1914 along with many other Belgians. He became organist at Beaumont College, Windsor, then in 1924 joint Director of Music at Farm Street church. Laloux also held appointments as singing teacher then Director of Music at Wimbledon College, close to the church, a position he maintained until his death in 1970. Laloux lost a leg serving in WW2, but continued to play the organ. His compositional language, while influenced by Ravel and, in his later works, Peeters, Langlais and Messiaen, is not lacking in individuality. Of the many pieces which Laloux composed for the churches at which he worked, several are regularly performed atmajor churches and cathedrals. The hymn-like Tantum ergo included here, the simpler of his two settings, is in four parts with a soprano descant in the second verse.

In common with all his other choral works, Pablo Casals’ O vos omnes (Jeremiah’s words from Lamentations 1:12) was dedicated to Montserrat Abbey in Catalonia and first performed there. The Benedictine Monastery at Montserrat proved to be one of the great spiritual influences of Casals’ life. Before his reinterment in 1979 at El Vendrell in Catalonia, his remains were laid in the Montserrat sacristy. The passionate, richly-textured O vos omnes sets the words of Christ and is most suitable for performance in Holy Week.

Charles Villiers Stanford completed his Easter anthem Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem in 1910. The text is from a hymn by Saint Fulbert of Chartres—words better known in combination with the hymn-tune 'St. Fulbert' by Henry John Gauntlett (1805-76). In this anthem Stanford alternates sections in 3/4 (G major) and 4/4 (G minor) respectively—the latter first emerging at 'Devouring depths of hell their prey'. Stanford reverts to 4/4 (now in G major) at 'All glory to the Father be' but the 3/4 returns for the splendid final Alleluia section.

Born in the Pas-de-Calais region, Jean Lhéritier was among the most highly regarded Renaissance composers of the generation following Josquin des Prez, with whom, according to an Italian contemporary, he studied at one time. In the early years of the 16th century he was associated with the Royal French court, but subsequently he worked in Ferrara, Rome, Mantua and Verona. Around 1530 he returned to live and work in France. The popularity of his music in Rome is indicated by the inclusion of his works in several manuscripts of Roman origin, but his music was also widely circulated across Europe. It is believed that he wrote about fifty motets, two of which Palestrina used as the basis of a mass. The original manuscript of his six-part composition Surrexit pastor bonus was a working choir book for the Julian Chapel choir of the Vatican and was re-discovered and published by David Trendell, late Director of Music at King’s College London.

Britten composed his Festival Te Deum, Op 32, in November 1944 in response to a commission for the centenary of St Mark’s Church, Swindon the following year. The premiere on 24th April 1945 (only weeks before Peter Grimes was first staged) was given by the choir of St Mark’s, a church with a proud choral tradition, together with choristers from three other local churches. Compared with Britten’s earlier Te Deum setting of 1934, this festival work is more original in content and structure and includes a soprano soloist. Britten shows his typical accommodation of amateur musicians’ abilities in his writing for the choir, while the organ part is more soloistic. In the opening section the choral parts have changing time-signatures, suggesting great freedom, while the organ plays decorated chords in a constant 3/4. At 'Thou art the King of glory' the music suddenly becomes strongly rhythmic, with extrovert flourishes from the organ, but calm returns and the piece ends serenely.

Blinded by glaucoma from the age of two, Jean Langlais studied the organ with Marcel Dupré, composition with Paul Dukas and improvisation with Charles Tournemire. He was organist at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris from 1945 to 1988, a position formerly held by César Franck and Charles Tournemire. Langlais composed more than 250 works, including about 90 for solo organ. Incantation pour un jour Saint (1949) is one of many pieces which he based upon Gregorian chant. Langlais evokes the ritual in which the deacon carries three candles into the darkness of the cathedral. Just as, while lighting each candle in turn, the deacon chants 'Lumen Christi (Light of Christ),' so Langlais begins the Incantation with three statements of the 'Lumen Christi' chant. Between recalls of the chant in the middle of the piece, and at the resplendent D major conclusion, Langlais incorporates fragments of the chant, with accumulating intensity.

James MacMillan is a Lay Dominican and a very large proportion of his output has been inspired by his Catholic faith. Sedebit dominus rex is the seventh of the first set of fourteen communion motets—accessible in style and of only moderate difficulty—composed for Strathclyde University Chamber Choir between 2005 and 2010. He has composed three sets of these so-called Strathclyde Motets to date. In the opening section of this motet for the Feast of Christ the King the incisive soprano line shows the influence of ancient Celtic music, another area which has provided MacMillan with a rich source of inspiration.

Born in Minehead, Peter Hurford studied both music and law at Jesus College Cambridge, where he established a reputation as an outstanding organist. Subsequently he studied the organ with André Marchal in Paris. For twenty years organist and choirmaster of St. Alban’s Abbey, in 1963 he conceived the idea of an organ competition which was later developed into the St. Alban’s International Organ Festival. He has recorded and broadcast the complete organ works of J. S. Bach. Among Hurford’s considerable body of work for the Anglican liturgy his Litany to the Holy Spirit, a setting of lines from the well-known Robert Herrick poem, is his most widely performed composition. He is an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College.

The Anglican liturgy was reformed during the six-year reign of Edward VI, the second of four monarchs for whom Tallis composed and performed. Their successive differing attitudes to church music meant that Tallis was obliged to be remarkably versatile—a challenge which he met with great skill. Like Byrd, born 35 years later, he remained an unreformed Catholic, but managed to avoid the religious controversies of that extremely turbulent period. Tallis was one of the first church composers to set English words in his anthems. If ye love me, a beautiful miniature in ABB form with words from the Gospel of St John, is one of several anthems which he wrote during the reign of Edward VI.

Grayston Ives is a former member of the King’s Singers, singing tenor from 1978-85. Until March 2009 Ives was Informator Choristarum (teacher of the choirboys), organist and Fellow and Tutor in Music at Magdalen College Oxford. His choral output ranges from canticles, anthems and motets to arrangements of spirituals, folk-songs and I’ve got you under my skin. His Listen sweet dove, a setting of lines from George Herbert’s collection The Temple, dates from 1973.

Born in Indiana, Ned Rorem has composed several dozen choral works, a cappella or accompanied. His several operas and large output of songs equally reflect his preoccupation with the human voice. Breathe on me, breath of God, a setting of words by Edwin Hatch (1835-89), dates from 1989. Although Hatch was primarily a theologian, these simple verses remain among his best-known writings and Rorem’s setting is lyrical and typically accessible, with some chromaticism from the third repetition of 'Breathe on me …'

Elgar completed The Apostles in 1903, intending it as the first work of a trilogy. The Kingdom followed in 1906 but the final work, provisionally entitled The Last Judgment, was left as merely a few jottings. Elgar was deeply influenced by the Ring cycle and decided to emulate Wagner by not only employing many leitmotifs but also assembling his own libretto—based on episodes from the Gospels. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, with a short introduction for orchestra/organ, forms the very opening of a work which has prompted the observation that it is Judas who is given the most distinctive musical characterisation.

Little is known about the life of John Sheppard but his output is enough to distinguish him as one of the finest Tudor composers of church music. The first of his two 7-part settings of Libera nos, salva nos is included here, its text taken from the sixth antiphon at Matins on Trinity Sunday. It is believed that this work dates from Sheppard’s time at Magdalen College Oxford, where he served for a few years as Informator Choristarum from 1543. In this serene setting the cantus firmus is sung by the bass line beneath a richly interwoven texture, with imitative entries based on variants of a descending phrase first heard in the third bar. Especially notable is Sheppard’s extended treatment of the final words 'O beata Trinitas'.

Born in Southwark, the son of a cabinet-maker, John Stainer rose from a humble background to become organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and an Oxford Professor. He was one of the most influential composers of the Victorian era but his music, like much of that period, became unfashionable for a time. After The Crucifixion the robust anthem I Saw the Lord ranks among his most popular works.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2014

On the evening of Sunday 29th June 2014, the Choir of Jesus College learnt the news of the tragic death of their dear friend, John Hughes, in a car accident earlier that day. John had been an undergraduate at Jesus College and in 2009 returned as Chaplain, later being appointed Dean of Chapel. He was just 35 years old at his death. An air of intense sadness fell over the whole community in the days that followed. Candles were lit, flowers left and, throughout the ancient buildings and grounds that were so dear to John, students, staff, academic colleagues and friends comforted each other in their grief and bewilderment. It was during these days, immediately following the death of John Hughes, that this recording was made. The options to postpone or to abandon the project were offered to the Choir, but it was their fervent wish to make the disc and to dedicate it to the memory of someone who meant a great deal to each and every performer. Within 24 hours of learning the news, the red light was on and just a couple of hours after the last take, the Chapel of Jesus College was filled to bursting as the Combined Choirs sang a short service for those who wished to come together in their sadness. A week later the College Choir sang at the funeral in Ely Cathedral, with a congregation of over 1000 people present. I would like to thank Chris Hazell and Mike Hatch, our producer and engineer, for their immense support and professionalism during the recording of this disc, but, most of all, I would like to pay tribute to the Choristers, Choral Scholars and Organ Scholars of Jesus College Cambridge. That they were able to sing or play at all is a miracle and it was not an easy time. Yet, in making music together, we were able to find some outlet for our grief and confusion and this disc will always be, for us, a reminder of that time and that man. It is dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Dr John Hughes with much love and admiration.

Charles Williams © 2014

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