A Graham Ross Christmas

Program: #20-53   Air Date: Dec 21, 2020

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The conductor of Clare College Cambridge celebrates early music for the season.

NOTE: All of the music on this special program was performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, conducted by our guest, Graham Ross.

He chose from the three Clare College releases dedicated to Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

I. Veni Emmanuel--Music for Advent (Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross). Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907579.

Veni Emmanuel

From Music Web International: The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge was only established in its present mixed-voice form in 1971 but in the intervening four decades it has secured a position as one of the foremost Oxbridge college choirs. Graham Ross is only the choir’s third Director of Music, in succession to John Rutter (1975-1979) and Timothy Brown (1979-2010). Incidentally, it’s nice to see Rutter reunited with his old choir as engineer and producer for this present disc.

Advent carol services, generally held on the first Sunday in Advent - or the day before - are especially significant in Oxbridge colleges as they are usually the last major service in a college’s chapel before the end of the Michaelmas term; most of the students have dispersed once Christmas itself arrives. Therefore colleges with choirs usually mount a special service and the programme devised by Graham Ross offers a taste of the music that might be sung at such a service in Clare College but without the interwoven scriptural readings and hymns.

Of particular significance is the inclusion of the plainchant antiphons, the so-called Great ‘O’ Antiphons. These antiphons are prescribed to be said or sung with the Magnificat at Evensong - or Vespers - in the seven days up to December 24 but it’s not unusual to find all of them included in the music for a collegiate service, as here. It will be noted that eight antiphons are sung. Graham Ross explains in his useful notes that this follows an alternative practice in medieval England whereby each of the Great ‘O’ Antiphons was brought forward by one day to admit an extra antiphon on 24 December in honour of the Blessed Virgin.

Though the programme is described as Music for Advent it’s one in which the story of the Birth of Christ is foreshadowed. The anthems have been chosen with great discrimination and they are often very apposite to the antiphon that precedes them. Thus, for example, Herbert Howells’ The fear of the Lord takes a similar text and message to that contained in the antiphon O Sapientia. This anthem was commissioned to mark the 650th anniversary of the foundation of Clare College. It’s a choice example of late Howells with rich, searching harmonies and a very affecting concluding section, full of contemplation and satisfyingly full textures.

The distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams somehow finds time to compose music as well, chiefly vocal and choral music so far as I know. I’ve heard several of his pieces and O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel strikes me as the most impressive I’ve encountered. Indeed, it’s an arresting composition, making imaginative use of spatial effects - positioning the sopranos at a distance. The second half of the piece is dominated by an impassioned tenor solo which has quite a Jewish feel to it. This piece comes across as a really urgent cry for redemption from the human condition and it is very well done here.

Much better known is Jan Sandström’s brilliantly inventive re-imagining of Praetorius. This Clare performance, which benefits from an excellent solo quartet, manages to combine mysteriousness and clarity to excellent effect. It’s good that John Rutter should be represented by what I think is one of his finest short pieces. Hymn to the Creator of Light was written for the Evensong at which a new Howells commemorative window was dedicated in Gloucester Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival of 1992 - not 1993, as stated in the notes. I was present at that first performance and the piece made a strong impression on me. There’s an Eastern Orthodox feel to some of the writing in the opening pages and the quiet, inventive re-harmonisation of an old Lutheran chorale towards the end is wonderful.

This isn’t the only Gloucester connection in this programme, as Graham Ross points out. Herbert Howells wrote his Gloucester Magnificat - and Nunc dimittis - with the acoustic of what was his home cathedral specifically in mind. They constitute one of the finest of all settings of the Anglican Evening Canticles and the Clare choir does the Magnificat very well indeed - I like very much the way each strand is clarified during their singing of the superb doxology. Ross’s own I sing of a maiden was premièred in Gloucester Cathedral during the 2010 Three Choirs Festival. I’m afraid this setting does little for me: the writing is too jagged and dissonant for my taste and doesn’t relate well to the message of the text, I feel. However, I enjoyed Ross’s imaginative arrangement of the concluding hymn, O Come, O come, Emmanuel, whi8ch features some spicy harmonies, especially in the organ part.

I learned of the death of Sir John Tavener just as I was typing this review. His God is with us is a marvellous piece and the thrilling organ chords that thunder towards the end of it are still a tremendous coup de theatre, even when one knows they are coming. They sound suitably massive here. During the programme no fewer than nine members of the choir make solo contributions. All are excellent but here bass Nicholas Mogg gets a real chance to shine in Tavener’s declamatory solo and he makes the most of his opportunity. It’s nice to have the complete contrast of Rachmaninov’s serene setting of the ‘Hail Mary’ so soon after the Tavener. The performance is refined and beautifully controlled.

Of the other pieces, the two examples of English renaissance polyphony are very well done, as is Warlock’s rapt little piece. The Mendelssohn is also well done but I’m afraid I found it musically dull. It was imaginative, however, to place it after the Bach chorale since Mendelssohn uses the same chorale at the end of this extract from his unfinished oratorio. All the plainchant antiphons are sung with an excellent feeling for style.

This is a marvellous programme of Music for Advent and it is executed superbly by the Clare College Choir. It’s obvious that the standard built up during Timothy Brown’s long leadership, especially, has been fully maintained by Graham Ross. Much of the music is unaccompanied but when the organ is required the college’s Senior Organ Scholar, Nicholas Haigh, makes a telling contribution. We know John Rutter to be an expert composer. He’s a pretty dab hand with the recording equipment too, it seems; the sound quality for this disc is excellent. I enjoyed this disc greatly, as I hope others will do.

John Quinn

Plainchant Veni, veni, Emmanuel [0:52]
William BYRD (c 1539-1623) Vigilate [4:04]
Plainchant Antiphon I: O Sapientia [0:54]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) The fear of the Lord (1976) [5:34]
Plainchant Antiphon II: O Adonai [0:59]
Roderick WILLIAMS (b. 1965) O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel (1997) [6:20]
Plainchant Antiphon III: O Radix Jesse [0:55]
Michael PRAETORIUS (c 1571-1621) arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954) Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [4:03]
Plainchant Antiphon IV: O Clavis David [1:00]
John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558) Audivi vocem de caelo [3:49]
Plainchant Antiphon V: O Oriens [0:50]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) Hymn to the Creator of Light (1992) [7:34]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 436 [1:33]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) There shall be a star from Jacob - from Christus [6:34]
Plainchant Antiphon VI: O Rex Gentium [0:52]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down (1927) [4:20]
Graham ROSS (b. 1985) I sing of a maiden (2010) [3:55]
Plainchant Antiphon VII: O Emmanuel [0:48]
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) God is with us (1987) [5:09]
Plainchant Antiphon VIII: O Virgo virginum [1:06]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Bogoroditse Dyevo - from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, No. 6 [2:42]
Herbert HOWELLS Magnificat (Gloucester Service) (1946) [6:41]
Trad. Arr. Graham ROSS O Come, O come, Emmanuel [5:07]

II. Lux de caelo--Music for Christmas (Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross). Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907615.

Lux de caelo

From Music Web International: Just a year ago I greatly enjoyed a disc of music for Advent from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (review). I’m delighted to find that they’ve followed up that release with a collection of music for Christmas.

Their well-planned programme has a number of links running through it. One such is connections with Clare College itself. One link is pretty obvious: John Rutter, who really put the college’s choir on the map when he was Director of Music (1975-9). Rutter has produced and engineered this disc – as he did the Advent disc – and one of his most enduringly popular Christmas pieces, Nativity Carol, finds a welcome place. Other Clare connections may be less obvious – they certainly were to me. Cecil Sharp, the great pioneer collector of English folk songs, was an alumnus of the college. It was he who collected an eight-stanza version of The truth from above and this unforgettably haunting tune is heard here in Vaughan Williams’s wonderful arrangement, though I don’t recall hearing as many as ten verses sung before and at that length even this lovely carol is slightly in danger of outstaying its welcome. There’s also a Clare connection, previously unknown to me, with Gabriel's Message in that the English translation of this Basque carol is by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, a nineteenth-century college alumnus.

Another set of links comes in the middle of the programme where we encounter a group of pieces by Michael Praetorius. These pieces are all given with theorbo and organ accompaniment and very good indeed they sound. Intelligently, Bach’s harmonisation of In dulci jubilo is included within this group.

Towards the end we find Christmas pieces by two giants of the Second Viennese School. I’m afraid Webern’s spiky Dormi, Jesu is not remotely to my taste but Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is quite another matter. Written in 1906, it was the composer’s last tonal work – and in it he pushes tonality to its limits. The music is ferociously demanding on the singers but these students seem undaunted by its difficulties. Usually the piece is performed unaccompanied but Schoenberg also produced a version with instrumental accompaniment. I’m not sure the piece is often given in this version – I can’t recall hearing it – so it’s valuable to hear the composer’s alternative.

There’s a generous helping of more recent compositions and arrangements. One that stood out for me was A babe is born by Mathias. Here the players of the Dmitri Ensemble bring out the spiky nature of the instrumental accompaniment in a more successful fashion than I can recall hearing before. There’s a rather acerbic setting of theCoventry Carol by Giles Swayne and the richness of Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God is splendidly delivered. Graham Ross, the choir’s director, contributes a version of Lullay, my liking for voices and harp. It’s interesting though the ornamentation is rather too florid for my taste. However, his a cappella arrangement of Still, Still, Still is most attractive and the warm arrangement for voices and strings of the Italian carol Tu scendi dalle stele is a delight. In complete contrast Riù, Riù, Chiù, arranged by Noah Greenberg, is exuberant and daringly earthy. This energetic performance is one of the best I’ve heard of this traditional Spanish carol.

Throughout this programme the Clare College choir sings superbly, demonstrating again that they are one of the finest Oxbridge choirs. The contributions of the Dmitri Ensemble are similarly excellent. This is a collection of Christmas music that dares to be different. Not everything here is completely to my taste but I still found the disc absorbing and the musicianship is consistently excellent. With very good recorded sound and a very well- produced booklet this is an intriguing and enticing Christmas package.

John Quinn

Benjamin BRITTEN A boy was born (theme)
William MATHIAS A babe is born
Felix MENDELSSOHN Frohlocket ihr Völker auf Erden Op. 79, No. 1
Trad, arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The truth from above
Trad. Old Basque Carol, arr. Edgar PETTMAN Gabriel's Message
Michael PRAETORIUS Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Quem pastores laudavere; Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; In dulci jubilo a 8
Johann Sebastian BACH In dulci jubilo BWV 368
Giles SWAYNE Coventry Carol Op. 77 No. 4*
Sir JohnTAVENER Hymn to the Mother of God
Trad. Spanish Carol Riù, Riù, Chiù
GRAHAM ROSS Lullay, my liking*
Trad. Italian arr. ROSS Tu scendi dalle stelle,
Austrian Carol, arr. GRAHAM ROSS Still, Still, Still
Anton WEBERN Dormi, Jesu
Trad. arr. Sir David WILLCOCKS Quelle est cette odeur agréable?
John RUTTER Nativity Carol
Arnold SCHOENBERG Friede auf Erden

III. Mater ora filium—Music for Epiphany (Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross). Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907653.

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, 'Mater Ora Filium' review - HoustonChronicle.com

Graham Ross directs the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in music celebrating the feast of Epiphany, culminating in Arnold Bax’s unaccompanied double-choir masterpiece, 'Mater ora filium' (1926). The feast of Epiphany falls on 6 January, 12 days after Christmas. Marked in the Christian world with the story of the Magi, many composers have been inspired by the account of ‘the three kings’ following the star, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This sequence of music explores some of the greatest musical contributions to the feast, principally from the 16th and 20th centuries. Three great Epiphany hymns frame this sequence, all in new arrangements by Graham Ross, and all here receiving their première recordings. Graham Ross has also written the excellent booklet note and is aided and abetted, again, by John Rutter as producer, engineer and editor.

From Gramophone: Taking inspiration from the seasons of the Anglican year – Advent, Passiontide, Pentecost, Easter – Graham Ross and the mixed-voice Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, have put together a thoughtful series of recordings that keep one foot in traditional Oxbridge Renaissance repertoire while also moving that tradition determinedly forwards into the 21st century. Their latest disc – ‘Music for Epiphany’ – is no exception, offering a collision of new and old that coalesces into a seasonal collection that works just as well as a recital as it does a reference recording … The performances of the Renaissance repertoire are characteristically strong … but it’s in the 20th-century works that Ross and his young singers come into their own. Fluid phrasing and expressive diction bring out the folk roots of the Howells and Warlock, while the exposed simplicity of I wonder as I wander and Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is deftly handled, especially by the impeccably blended top line. Bax’s Mater ora filium makes a climactic closer, its episodic structure paced beautifully. Classic Epiphany hymns (most of them in sometimes unexpected arrangements by Ross himself) are a bonus, providing the supporting pillars for this wide-ranging collection. --Alexandra Coghlan

Bax Mater Ora Filium
Berkeley, L I sing of a maiden
Bingham, J Epiphany
Byrd Ecce Advenit
Clemens Magi veniunt ab oriente
Cornelius The Three Kings
Howells Long, Long Ago
Howells Here is the Little Door
Lasso Omnes de Saba
Mouton, J Nesciens Mater
Niles I wonder as I wander
Palestrina Tribus miraculis ornatum
Poulenc Videntes stellam (No. 3 from Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, Op.152)
Sheppard, J Reges Tharsis et insulae
trad. O worship the lord
trad. Hail to the Lord’s Anointed! (arr. Graham Ross) World première recording.
trad. As with gladness men of old (arr. Graham Ross) World première recording
Warlock Bethlehem Down
Warlock Benedicamus Domino
Weir Illuminare, Jerusalem