GMCD 7222 – Christ Rising – Music for Holy Week & Easter

Choir of The Queen’s College Oxford, Owen Rees – Director

To the CD in our Shop

American Record Guide April 02

The works in this program are arranged to form a Progression of musical meditations on the events of Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to the Resurrection on Easter Day. Four organ chorales from Bach’s Orgelb├╝chlein are inserted at appropriate points in the succession of unaccompanied choral pieces. The only accompanied vocal piece is the final one: Byrd’s verse anthem ‘Christ Rising’.

The choral works themselves come from two rather narrow chronological and stylistic bands. The first is works by late Renaissance masters-Tallis, Lassus, Victoria, Morley, and Byrd-directed by Owen Rees, Fellow and Organist of The Queen’s College, Oxford. The other works are from composers of the 20th Century-Poulenc, Leighton, Britten, and Walton-directed by Edward Whiting, Organ Scholar at The Queen’s College from 1998 to 2001, who also plays the four Bach organ chorales. While these works range chronologi- cally from Walton’s ‘Litany’ (1916) to the second half of the 20th Century, they have a stylistic kinship that is perhaps easier to hear than to describe. it involves expressive dissonant harmony, yet there is at the same time a certain outward emotional restraint. This is far removed from heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism, even when the expressive element is most intense, as in Leighton’s ‘What Love Is This of Thine’, and seems as if it can be contained only with great difficulty, making the effect all the more poignant. A moment’s reflection will reveal that a very similar aesthetic is at work in the Renaissance motets and anthems.

The choir of The Queen’s College is a mixed ensemble (9-5-5-6) with female sopranos and a combination of male and female altos. The sound is very smooth and refined, with a good choral blend. The sopranos use a straight and fairly delicate tone, but they do not sound like boys. Choral ensemble and intonation are excellent Judging from this recording, they are exceptionally well attuned to the expressive world of this repertory.

Classical Music on the Web – 20 October 2001

This intelligently planned CD offers a sequence of music for the period known in the Roman Catholic Church as the Triduum, that is to say Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The sequence is rightly completed by music suitable for Easter day itself. At appropriate points along the way we encounter apposite chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgelbuchlein.

In fact, the programme goes further by illustrating some of the main events in the Passion of Christ. So the two Maundy Thursday pieces illustrate respectively the Last Supper (Tallis) and the arrest of Christ (Poulenc). Similarly the Good Friday section is divided into three parts: Jesus condemned; The Crucifixion; and the Death of Jesus. The programme as a whole provides a deeply satisfying and well-chosen meditation on the central events of the Christian year.

In common with the majority of Oxbridge colleges chapel choirs today the choir of Queens College includes both male and female voices, including a mixed alto line which I often find produces a “best of both worlds” blend, as is here the case. There are 25 singers and they produce a beautifully blended sound throughout the programme, whether in the aching, bitter-sweet harmonies of Poulenc’s Vinea mea electa or in the magnificent, joyful verse anthem by Byrd with which they conclude (the only accompanied piece on the disc).

There are several twentieth century English pieces, including, appropriately, one by Kenneth Leighton, who was a student at the college between 1947 and 1951. His anthem receives an assured and understanding performance, directed by Edward Whiting, who is in charge of the other modern choral pieces. All of these are similarly well performed. The remaining choral offerings come are by English or Iberian composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the particular speciality of Owen Rees, the College organist. It is quite evident that he has successfully conveyed to the choir his love and enthusiasm for this style of music.

Besides the general excellence of the performances one other point is noteworthy, I think. In most recitals of this nature it is usually the Director of Music who is to the fore, directing the choir while the Organ Scholar appears very much as the junior partner, contributing accompaniments and the occasional voluntary. Not in this case. This is very much a collaborative venture even including the (excellent) notes, which are jointly credited to Owen Rees and his Organ Scholar, Edward Whiting. They share the conducting of the choir and theirs is evidently a most successful partnership. Whiting is the thoughtful and musical performer who plays the four Bach chorales on the college organ, a two-manual, Danish instrument built in 1965 which suits these lovely little meditations to perfection.

The recording was made in the college chapel just a few days after Easter Sunday when presumably much if not all of the music was fresh in the minds of the performers after the Holy Week services. The sound is excellent: well balanced with just the right amount of space and ambience around the voices.

If this repertoire is to your taste, as it is to mine, you will find this recital a very satisfying experience. Warmly recommended.
John Quinn