The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Our Easter Highlights

  12th April 2022

12th April 2022

Easter, like Christmas, comes but once a year. The date varies (calculated according to the phases of the moon), but it always falls on a Sunday, the culmination of a particular intense period of reflection for Christians on the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Although nowadays celebrated in the west with less extravagance and indulgence than in the churches of eastern orthodoxy, Holy Week and Easter have given rise to some of the greatest examples of visual arts and music across the centuries. Two of our recent reviews (Gesualdo and Tallis from the Gesualdo Six, and Bach’s St Matthew Passion from Pygmalion) have highlighted the intensity of emotion in works associated with Holy Week. This year, however, in addition to a plentiful supply of Tenebraes, Lamentations and Passions, there has been an impressive number of releases of music for Easter itself, balancing prayerful introspection with hope and joy to lift the spirits. Of these, four titles in particular have impressed us with the high quality of their performances and the vividness with which they capture the immensity of the season.

Over the past few years, releases from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge on their own discs for the Signum label have offered consistently fine, thoughtful and inspiring music-making. Their latest disc, ‘Eastertide Evensong’ (SIGCD707), is no exception. It follows the time-honoured pattern of the Anglican service of Evensong, with anthems, prayers, psalms and (of course) the two canticles – Magnificat and Nunc dimittis – that form the service’s centrepiece. ‘Eastertide Evensong’ opens with the haunting, gently lilting music of Julian Anderson’s My beloved spake, setting a well-known text from the biblical Song of Songs. The prayers of the Preces and Responses are energetic settings by Kenneth Leighton, and of the psalm settings, Psalm 12 set by John Goss (a pupil of Thomas Attwood) is a particularly fine example of the English tradition of psalmody, beautifully sung under Andrew Nethsingha’s rock-steady direction. The musical highlights of the disc, however, are Herbert Howells’s 1946 Gloucester Service (the frisson of a live recording especially evident in the Nunc dimittis), and John Taverner’s magical Dum transisset Sabbatum I, a classic of the Tudor repertoire in which the St John’s Choir have always excelled. With spoken lesson, Creed and closing prayers, and ending with the exultant finale of Widor’s Sixth Organ Symphony punchily played by James Anderson-Besant, this is a disc for those who value the contemplative riches of evensong as much as its capacity for joy.

For a programme featuring Easter favourites, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, has put together ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’ (KGS0065), a disc that combines seasonal hymns and anthems ranging from Byrd and Lotti (the latter’s glorious Crucifixus a 6) to Bob Chilcott’s engaging setting of the title text, via such stalwarts of the English choral tradition as Stainer, Elgar and Ireland. Traditionalists will welcome such seasonal hymns as ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’, ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ and ‘There is a green hill far away, and Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Wash me throughly is guaranteed to elicit an emotional response. But the inclusion of Duruflé’s Ubi caritas and Rossini’s O salutaris hostia add an attractive extra dimension to musical spread, and Charles Tournemire’s chorale improvisation on ‘Victimae paschali’ (as transcribed by Duruflé, and performed here by Matthew Martin) makes a splendid postlude. Nobody who loves ‘the King’s Sound’ will want to be without this disc. It’s a pity that the CD release has been delayed until after Easter itself, but – as with Christmas – the Easter season lasts longer than just a few days, and playing this disc any time before Ascensiontide (26 May this year) will be entirely apt.

For a very different take on the Easter story, Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione takes some beating. Composed in 1708 during his sojourn in Rome for the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli, it dates from the same time as his Italian cantatas, and has a similar youthful freshness and vitality of invention. Unlike many Baroque oratorios with their Evangelist narrators and moments of choral and congregational prayerfulness, this work brings the story of the three days encompassing Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day itself vibrantly to life, with a cast of characters including two Marys (Magdalene and Cleophas) and John the Apostle, but also a high soprano Angel and an imposing bass part for Lucifer. Ruspoli was reprimanded by the Pope for allowing the part of Mary Magdalene to be sung at the first performance – in strict contravention of papal edict – by a female singer, Margherita Durastanti. On the new recording of La Resurrezione from The English Concert under Harry Bicket (CKD675), that role is taken with marvellous sensitivity by soprano Sophie Bevan. The dazzling coloratura of the Angel is splendidly sung by Lucy Crowe, Mary Cleophas by the ever-stylish countertenor of Iestyn Davies – both singers appeared on Bicket’s acclaimed recording of Handel’s opera Rodelinda just a year ago. The stellar line-up is completed by Hugo Hymas as St John and Ashley Riches oozingly malevolent as Lucifer. Set to disprove the old maxim that the Devil has all the best tunes, however, this performance bursts with energy and feeling from start to finish, the characters leaping off the page as they move through the pain of loss via hope to love.

Last but by no means least, a disc that transports us to classical-era Vienna as well as 21st-century Oxford. Ressurexi! (CRD3539) is the latest release on CRD by the Choir of Keble College, Oxford, under their director of music Paul Brough. It presents music by Mozart and the Haydn brothers – Joseph and Michael – in the context of Mass as sung in the College Chapel with plainchant seasonal Propers. The ‘Ordinary’ of the Mass (i.e. the ‘fixed’ portions: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.) are to Mozart’s wonderfully compact Missa brevis in C major, K258, known variously as the ‘Spaurmesse’ or ‘Piccolomini’ Mass. Its dimensions may be modest, but with an orchestra including pairs of oboes and trumpets plus timpani, this is music that packs a real punch, and Brough’s splendidly buoyant direction is enhanced by the alertness of the singing from the mixed choir, and the immense stylishness of the historically-informed Instruments of Time and Truth. Mozart’s festive-sounding setting of the Marian antiphon Regina caeli, K276, and Church Sonata in G, K274, elevate proceedings still further, as do Michael Haydn’s lovely setting of Victimae paschali laudes, MH361, and brother Joseph’s splendid Te Deum in C. The chant woven between these items has the effect of setting them into magical relief, like the jewels they are, and this consistently uplifting disc offers a refreshingly distinctive way of celebrating the Easter season.

The Recordings:
Easter Evensong (Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge / Nethsingha)  SIGCD707
Now the Green Blade Riseth (Choir of King’s College, Cambridge / Hyde)  KGS0065
Handel - La Resurrezione (English Concert / Bicket)  CKD675
Resurrexi! Easter in Vienna with Mozart and the Haydn Brothers (Choir of Keble College, Oxford / Brough)  CRD3539

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