This new disc from the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge, director Mark Williams, on the Signum Classics label, pulls together an eclectic selection of settings of the Song of Songs (with some excursions). The programme mixes early pieces by Antoine Brumel, Matrin di Rivafrecha and Clemens non Papa with twentieth-century works by Pablo Casals, Healey Willan, Edward Bairstow, William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Edvard Grieg, Patrick Hadley, Maurice Duruflé and contemporary pieces by Howard Skempton, Nico Muhly and Robert Walker. Plus a short excursion into the nineteenth-century for SS Wesley.
As on their previous disc, both choirs are represented on the disc. The chapel choir, which is men and boys, and the college choir, which is men and women, with male altos, tenors and basses being common to both choirs. The majority of works on the disc are performed by the college choir, with the chapel choir singing three items, the treble choristers sing one item on their own, and the combined choirs sing three items. There is also an organ solo from Robert Dixon.
The disc opens with the college choir singing Sicut Lilium by Antoine Brumel (1460-1515), the earliest piece on the disc. It is a short piece, but slow, poised and beautifully contemplative. The combined choirs (with Benjamin Morris on organ) follow this with As the apple tree by Robert Walker (born 1946). Walker is a former organ scholar at Jesus College. The work was written in 1985 (for his nephew's wedding). Walker's style is predominantly consonant, and the piece grows from a plainchant-like phrase into a more developed piece, with powerful moments.
My beloved spake by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973) is sung by the chapel choir. Hadley was a pupil of RVW and this setting dates from 1938. After a dramatic opening, the work is full of lovely harmonies and fades after a full climax.
The next group of works are all sung by the college choir. Maurice Duruflé's Ubi Caritis is based on the plainchant melody which Duruflé harmonises and here received a poised and beautifully shaped performance.
Howard Skempton's (born 1947) Rise up my Love consists of four short movements sets words from the Song of Songs, commissioned in 2002 by the Estonian Philharmonic. Rise up my Love is beautifully evocative in a melodic romantic style. How fair is they love is song by male voices, deep, dark and chant-like. My beloved is gone is for women's voice, very much an attractive part-song. Finally, How fair and how pleasant is full of rich harmonies.
The combined choirs sing Set me as a seal by Nico Muhly (born 1981), written in 2003 and using both Hebrew and English words. The work has a lovely romantic sweep to the vocal lines which contrasts with the percussive piano part (played by Benjamin Morris).
The college choir performs Ego flos campi by Clemens non Papa (1510-1556), combining a finely balanced poised performance with a full, yet fine-grained sound.
Robert Dixon then plays the Aubade from Pieces de Fantasie by Louis Vierne (1870 -1937). The work has a nice fluid feel with fascinating, wandering chromatic harmonies.
The college choir then sings a pair of anthems by Healey Willan (1880-1968). Though British, Willan spent most of his career in Canada and his work is not quite so well known in the UK. Rise up my love is full of beautifully shaped lines, whilst I beheld her beautiful as a dove is full of flowing, transparent textures.
The trebles, accompanied by Benjamin Morris on the organ, sing Nigra sum by Pablo Casals (1876-1973). The melody here is lovely, with some very exotic hints and it gets a lovely focussed flowing line from the trebles. The full chapel choir continues with Anima mea by Martin de Rivefrecha (1479-1528). He was a priest ad Palencia Cathedral. His motet shows an elegant simplicity, being principally homophonic.
The Four Psalms by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) date from late in Grieg's life, 1906, and are certainly not well enough known. Here the college choir sings How fair is thy face with a lovely baritone solo from Michael Mofidian. They sing in English with a rather old fashioned translation from Percy Grainger (rather too many yea's for my liking). There are some perfect hints of the lyric pieces in this lovely piece. The college choir continue with a pair of English works, by Bairstow and Walton. Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) was organist at Organ Minster. His anthem I sat down under his shadow dates from 1925 and is short but very lovely. William Walton wrote his setting of Set me as a seal for the wedding Ivor Guest and Mabel Fox-Strangeways, in fact Ivor was Walton's mistress's son, who was only a year younger than Walton. It is, perhaps, not quite as Walton-like as some of his works but is a very fine piece. You wonder whether the impassioned devotion that comes over from the words referred to the bride and groom, or to the groom's mother and Walton! The college choir give us some fine solos (from Declan Corr and Katie Matthews).
Accompanied by Robert Dixon (organ), the chapel choir sing My lovely one by Walton's contemporary Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). It starts with a dark and mysterious organ introduction and then continues in this vein with a poised performance from the choir.
The disc finishes with the combined choirs singing Blessed be the God and Father by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) with Robert Dixon (organ) and Alasdair Austin (treble). This is one of SS Wesley's large scale anthems (written in 1834 for Hereford Cathedral), here is receives a finely polished performance with a lovely treble solo.
This is a fine and enjoyable disc, full of vivid performances and imaginative programming. Under Mark Williams direction, the choirs make a clear elegant and focussed sound, and clarity is very much the watchword in the performances.