A new recording by John Rutter and his Cambridge Singers is always welcome, and this one features 20 works drawn from the sacred choral repertoire of the Renaissance and Baroque. Most of these are motets and many are familiar (Palestrina's Sicut cervus and Exsultate Deo, Gabrieli's Jubilate Deo, Lassus' Timor et tremor, Josquin's Ave Maria) and all are included in Rutter's published anthology, European Sacred Music (Oxford). As Rutter states, the program's theme is to focus on the "wealth of sacred music...created in continental Europe out of the ferment of the age of Reformation", and while Rutter has chosen primarily works resulting from the "extraordinary flowering" of musical activity in the Catholic church during this period, we also are treated to a motet by Bach (O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht BWV 118/231, often mis-classified as a cantata), a Magnificat (presumably) by Buxtehude, and a psalm (100) by Schütz.
Some listeners of course will disagree, but for me, the program's two longest pieces--Monteverdi's Beatus vir and the Buxtehude Magnificat--are the least interesting, the former's main thematic material formed primarily by repetitive scales and rudimentary harmony set to monotonous rhythm, the latter functional and pleasant enough but rather flat, undynamic, and static, a work that reminds us that just because a notable composer wrote (or may have written!) something and the score survived doesn't necessarily mean it's good or worthy of more than musicological interest.
No matter how you judge these two works, you'll be happy with the performances, which throughout this recording are at the high level we always expect from this choir and director: vibrant, articulate, carefully balanced, and always attentive to a given work's inherent expressive possibilities. And speaking of articulate, it's wonderful to hear the opening Jubilate Deo (a piece lovingly attempted and so often mangled by well-meaning choirs all over the world) sung with such clarity and agility, unrushed; likewise, Palestrina's sublime Sicut cervus is well-paced, each line given its due. Other highlights include the Ave Maria of Josquin (impressive intonation and sectional tone quality), Lassus' Ave verum corpus (those exquisitely sustained long lines!), and a curious--and quite beautiful--setting of Crux fidelis attributed to John IV, King of Portugal. The instrumental ensemble, the relatively "new" La Nuova Musica, is first-rate, its timbres adding textural variety and layers of color to nine of the selections. And completing the package is top-notch production and engineering by Simon Eadon, captured in the excellent acoustics of London's Great Hall of University College School. Needless to say: Highly recommended!
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com