Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music for Tomorrow’s Corpus Christi from Clare College

Where my personal work practices are concerned, the winding down of the 2016–2017 concert season marks a time when I can begin to devote more attention to recordings that have been sitting on my queue for some significant time past their respective release dates. This morning, however, I realized that one of those albums that had been waiting patiently could not have had better timing as a result of the delay. The album is the latest harmonia release of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, led by its Director Graham Ross. The title of the recording is Pange lingua: Music for Corpus Christi; and, as a result of a recent decision made by Pope Francis, it turns out that the Feast of Corpus Christi will be celebrated tomorrow! (Do procrastinators have a patron saint?)

courtesy of PIAS

Since 2013, when the album Veni Emmanuel: Music for Advent was released, Ross has been planning a series of recordings, each of which involves a significant date and/or celebration in the liturgical calendar. Regular readers know that my own vantage point is a secular one, so the significance of occasion has not registered very deeply with me. Nevertheless, the project is an interesting one to the extent that Ross plans each album as a survey of a generously wide swath of music history.

As had been the case when Veni Emmanuel began this program, that swath begins with plainchant. The text is the Latin hymn written by Thomas Aquinas specifically for the Feast of Corpus Christi: “Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium” (tell, tongue, the mystery of the glorious Body). This is the chant that provided the cantus firmus for the Missa Pange lingua, which is generally taken to be the last Mass setting composed by Josquin des Prez. Indeed, the work was so late that it did not appear in Ottaviano Petrucci’s published collection of Josquin’s Mass settings, which appeared in 1514. Furthermore, while Josquin was a prolific composer of Mass settings (his Wikipedia page lists eighteen of them), only four of them were based on plainchant (Missa Pange lingua being the last of them).

The program for the album then continues with another Aquinas text. “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” (Sion, praise your Saviour) is a sequence also written for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Furthermore, both this sequence and the “Pange lingua” hymn were written (probably around 1264) at the request of Pope Urban IV for the same service. However, the musical setting was probably written about half a century later than Josquin’s Mass setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Indeed, the texts of Aquinas provide the “spinal cord” for most of the selections on this album, extending all the way from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century of Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Villette, both of whom composed settings of “O Sacrum Convivium” (O sacred banquet), an antiphon that is attributed “with some probability” (as its Wikipedia page puts it) to Aquinas. The album then concludes with Gerald Finzi’s anthem “Lo, the full, final sacrifice,” whose text is based on two poems by the seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw, one of which is based on Aquinas’ “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” text. The scope of the entire album actually extends into the 21st-century with the world premiere of Ross’ own setting of the Corpus Christi hymn “Ave verum corpus” (hail, true body).

The result is an album that is decidedly impressive in its historical scope and in the scholarship behind the establishing of that scope. Nevertheless, I have one quibble with how this recording was produced. The recordings were made in two different cathedral settings in England, Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk and the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire. While I have no problem with the underlying technical discipline, whether it involves the balance of the resources or the actual audio capture, I have to say that, as a serious listener with a strong interest in the pre-Baroque repertoire, I find the sonorities to be a bit too rich.

Ross clearly has a keen ear for the underlying harmonies; but, for just about every selection on this album, the virtues of the music reside in the voice leading. For better or worse, I have developed a preference for such music performed by radically reduced resources, often with little more (if any) than one-to-a-part singing. It is only by thinning out the overall texture that the attentive listener can effectively tune in to the individual parts, both as melodic lines and for the harmonies they form with the other parts. This is, admittedly, a highly personal opinion; but I am far from the only one to espouse it. It thus seems fair to alert like-minded readers to this weakness in the overall impression made by the album. Those who are not so minded are free to disregard this paragraph!

Finally, it is important to observe that the above hyperlink to this album is for the Audio CD page on Those interested in the options for Streaming and MP3 download will discover the availability of a “Bonus Track.” This is a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 618 setting of the “Ave verum corpus” text with organist Michael Papadopoulos providing the accompaniment. This track may be accessed separately by those who prefer having a physical copy of this album.

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