New Classical Tracks: From Chant to Contemporary

by Julie Amacher
December 18, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: 'Veni Emmanuel'

Veni Emmanuel (Music for Advent) - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi 907579)

"It's only about one square mile. It's very, very small. It's the only place in the world where you can hear so many choral services going on in such a small place, to such a high quality!"

So says Graham Ross, who's in his fourth year as music director of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, one of 30 colleges within that one square mile.

"Our prime reason for existing is to sing the music of the liturgy in the chapel.We do that three times a week during the academic term," Ross explains. "But outside of the term we spend about five to six weeks of the year in external activities. Sometimes concerts, broadcasts, concerts, recordings, TV and radio work. Currently, we're on tour here in the U.S., giving concerts all through the week in seven different states in seven days. It's grueling but a wonderful opportunity for us to come and perform our repertoire here to such appreciative audiences."

That grueling tour, which wrapped up just a few days ago, features a program Graham Ross assembled, called "Veni Emmanuel." It's the same program you'll find on the choir's latest recording, which is the first in a series celebrating church music throughout the calendar year.

"This program is centered around what we call the great O Antiphons, which were traditionally the plainchant antiphons that were performed either side of the Magnificat, the song of Mary, on the seven days leading up to Christmas," Ross says. "And so they're full of imagery and rich in symbolism. And I've devised a program where we sing all those antiphons in turn, but we complement them with either settings of the text by different composers or pieces that are related. That lets us tap into a very broad range of repertoire, which sees the choir sing in a whole variety of languages with music spanning from plainchant up to brand-new commissions premiered last week and of course everything in between."

"The disc itself is Veni Emanuel, and that's the title of the opening track which is the original plainchant version of 'O Come O Come Emanuel,' one of the great Advent hymns. It's a summation of everything you hear between the bookends of the disc, opening first in a Latin version and finishing in an arrangement that I made for the College's Advent Carol services back in 2011 with a rather spicy re-harmonized version for the organ. And a last verse that features a double choir descant."

Following the Latin version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," you'll hear a gorgeous madrigal from one of England's most prominent Renaissance composers, William Byrd. Graham Ross says "Vigilate" is a fantastic essay in word painting. "Everything falls asleep and the lines become legato and melodic and everything relaxes and when the cock crows and suddenly you hear the basses rising like a morning alarm over this quiet page. 'Vigilate' means watch, keep watch. And it's a wonderful opener for the disc because it prepares us for the sentiment of Advent, which is of course to wait, to listen, to be expectant and to be in this period of four weeks to prepare for the birth of Christ on Christmas Day."

World-famous composer John Rutter was instrumental in first putting the Choir of Clare College on the map. He was music director in the 1970s, when women were first admitted to the college. Today he continues to produce, edit and engineer all of the choir's recordings, including this one. Veni Emmanuel features one of his beautiful songs for double choir, "Hymn to the Creator of Light."

"And for people who think they know John's music, they might be surprised because it's a harmonic language that is, if you like, more developed than some of his other works," Ross says. "It creates a wonderful rich tapestry that sets this text, which finishes with a very beautiful chorale from Kruger that you hear at the end sung by one of the choirs. For anyone who doesn't know that piece — it is a fantastic work because it's not always tackled by choirs. Well worth listening to."

Another surprising piece on this recording was written by one of England's most respected baritones, Roderick Williams. In his setting of the "O Adonai" antiphon, a solo soprano is the angel. She and all of the sopranos sing high into the stratosphere, while the tenors and basses chant the text over and over again. "And it's worth mentioning that throughout the piece there are two keys going on — almost bitonal, which is an extraordinary effect," Ross explains. "And when we recorded the work in a large church in North London, we tried to recreate that spatial arrangement — the sopranos were high up, far away from the choir. And the solo tenor in the recording was positioned high up with a solo microphone. I hope the recording matches some of that effect you get in performance. But this is a piece we're performing throughout the States and judging from the reactions of the audience over the last two nights, it's something that does rather wow listeners, whether you're live in performance or on disc."