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Recordings

All the Ends of the Earth:  Contemporary & Medieval Vocal Music
29 Nov 2006

All the Ends of the Earth: Contemporary & Medieval Vocal Music

There is an often compelling relationship between early and contemporary music. The relationship grows out of many different things.

All the Ends of the Earth: Contemporary & Medieval Vocal Music

The Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; William Towers Countertenor; Geoffrey Webber, Director

Signum Classics SIGCD070 [CD]

$19.98  Click to buy

In some cases it is a modern use of modality and chant-like figuration; in some cases a modern adaptation of earlier formal structures; in still other cases the relationship emerges in the new use of early texts and cantus firmus melodies; and in yet other instances, the relationship is a less concrete one, rooted in a spiritual affinity between modern composer and her earlier counterpart. The music of Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan immediately come to mind, and it is no surprise that both of these composers have been significantly associated with early music performers: Pärt with Paul Hillier and MacMillan with The Sixteen.

“All the Ends of the Earth,” this recent recording from the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, celebrates this relationship with an array of compositions by modern composers from the UK (Judith Weir, James Weeks, Bayan Northcutt, Michael Finnissy, Robin Holloway, Jonathan Harvey, and Gabriel Jackson), paired with diverse works from early English and Scottish sources. Of the modern pieces, Weir’s “All the Ends of the Earth” and Jackson’s “Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury” are exceptionally impressive. The former, based on Perotinus’s famous “Viderunt,” retains the chant structure and layered texture of the organum, and brings to it new upper-voice counterpoint with intricate ornamental figuration. The latter sets a commemorative text in praise of Archbishop Thomas Becket (one of two texts in the original fourteenth-century motet; the other text is in honor of another Thomas, a martyred monk of Dover), and does so with tone clusters, a richly ornamental linear style, interesting canonic interplay, and shimmering effects.

The early works range from the Winchester Troper and the famous thirteenth-century St. Andrews Manuscript to John Dunstable’s fifteenth-century declamatory motet, “Quam pulchra es.” The range of pieces gives a fair idea of things that are being echoed in the modern works, though one wonders why, when some of the models are so specific, those particular works are passed by. The absence of “Viderunt” (Weir) and the fourteenth-century “Thomas gemma Cantuarie” (Jackson) is a lost opportunity, and one of the very few regrets in this excellent recording.

The performances here are extremely well prepared. The difficulty of much of the modern writing presents enormous challenges to the performers, and the choir meets them with unflagging confidence and expert control of difficult harmonies, complicated rhythms, and intricate figuration. On occasion one might wish for a greater brilliance of treble tone—it would well serve the color and dynamism of much of the writing—but in the end, the lingering impression is one of very satisfying and accomplished ensemble singing. High praise for that, and high praise for a program that does not recycle the “tried and true.”

Steven Plank

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