Top Ear

Ravishing: Rutter’s Requiem and other choral works

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Jeremy Lee writes

This is a brilliant disc.  I bought it 5 years ago as one of the very first discs since I started to build up my classical collection, and no matter how my music tastes have changed, or how many discs I have accumulated and gotten rid of throughout the years, this disc has remained in my collection, which is saying a lot.

The centerpiece of this Rutter choral work collection is his 40-minute Requiem, one based on Faure and Cherubini’s lighter, more humane view of eternity (as opposed to Verdi/Berlioz/Britten’s vision of apocalyptic terror and wailing and gnashing of teeth), and this particular recording is the first recording of Rutter’s chamber ensemble version, scored for cello, flute, oboe, harp, timpani, glockenspiel and organ (in addition to the regular vocal forces) and produced by Rutter himself.  Compared to Cleobury’s popular full orchestra version on EMI (as well as Rutter’s various recordings on Collegium), this recording sounds considerably more intimate and mellow, not only due to the smaller forces used, but also the more intonationally focused and exquisite Choir of Clare College Cambridge (perhaps I prefer the more stable and sonorous tone of the female sopranos, in contrast to the slightly nasal boy soprano forces used in Cleobury’s recording).  Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas sports a clear, clear and bright tone that effortlessly projects, and her diction is impeccable–technically preferable to the slightly shaky boy soprano Cleobury used, though de gustibus non est disputandum.  At any rate, her angelic solo in Pie Jesu is touching in the utmost.  The musicians of the City of London Sinfonia play their parts with delicacy and beauty, and Timothy Brown’s direction is assured and flowing, and though Brown’s ideas are mostly conventional, this is more a function of the strict stylistic parameters Rutter outlines in his music than a lack of ideas from the conductor.

The other choral works are less well-known, and some reveal a more dissonant and harmonically complex language, such as Arise, Shine and Musica Dei donum that reminds me of the language used by Vaughan Williams and Britten:  largely tonal, though harmonically unpredictable, and sometimes quoting harmonies, styles and melodies from medieval or other archaic sources.  The two organ pieces that conclude the disc share a similar language, though Rutter’s display of adventure in the Toccata in 7 is more in the catchy 7/8 rhythm than in the generally conventional harmonic progressions.  To me, however, the simpler and more conventional pieces are considerably more touching.  A Clare Benediction is one example:  with its effortlessly singable melody, simple harmonies and perfectly understandable and relatable English text, it must be considered one of the highlights of this album–I have been moved by this simple song many times, and I am sure all of you will, too.

Allow me to let you into a little secret:  I love John Rutter’s music, and I don’t see why so many classical aficionados view them as “cheap” or “unsophisticated light music”.  True, if “real art is angsty” is your motto, Rutter does not hold a candle to Beethoven or Mahler and in terms of musical innovation he pales in the shadow of other modern classical composers such as Boulez or Penderecki.  But most of Rutter’s music is simple, beautiful, moving and above all sincere, and I see no reason for some stuffy elitists to avoid his music because his language can easily touch and be comprehended by the non-musical masses, much more so than the prohibitingly heterodox and avant-garde music produced these days that have become the epitome of “modern classical music”.  And isn’t this “universal language” characteristics of music one of its most altruistic functions, one of the few things that remains common to our world of discord and differences?

A beautifully recorded production that no music lover can afford to miss.


  • Album name:  Rutter:  Requiem and other sacred music
  • Performers:  Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano);  Timothy Brown (conductor);  Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
  • Label:  Naxos 8.557130
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:07:48

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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