It is fashionable in some circles to deride the music of John Rutter because of its strong popular appeal, and indeed it may be true that Rutter is the John Stainer of our era. That is, his music is simple enough to be taken up by amateur groups, church and lay alike, and is enjoyed by many although it possibly will not be remembered by posterity. Somewhere I saw Rutter compared with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but that's a specious notion; Rutter is much more skilled than Webber, regardless of the man-on-the-street popularity of the latter. Rutter is a very careful and meticulous writer with to the ability to write tunes that become veritable 'ear-worms.'
The major piece on this CD is the 'Mass of the Children,' written in 2002. Although recorded before, this is the first recording using the version for chamber orchestra and organ along with mixed choir, children's choir, and soprano and baritone soloists. Rutter conducts forces from Clare College, Cambridge, his alma mater, and gets a marvelously focused and precise performance. He also conducted the earlier CD using full orchestra, which I have not heard. He says he was stimulated to write this piece by the strong memories he retained from singing in a children's choir in the first recording of Britten's 'War Requiem' which uses the same forces. Indeed, the first few minutes of the piece, the Kyrie, sounds for all the world like it could have been written by Britten. Indeed, throughout the 'Mass' (particularly the 'Gloria') one hears echoes of Britten's modal triad-based harmonies; of course the sound of children's chorus singing English words also reminds one of Britten as he wrote so much for trebles in his long career. Early on in his career, Rutter was heavily identified with the Faure Requiem and one hears similarities to that work. Still, this is indubitably Rutter through and through. And for those who love his music, this recording (or the version with full orchestra on Collegium) is a must-have.
The disc is filled out by a charming 1979 song cycle for baritone and guitar called 'Shadows.' It is sung idiomatically and lovingly by Jeremy Huw Williams accompanied by a recent Clare graduate, guitarist Stewart French. The eight songs, all evoking images of the evanescence of life, are set to English poems from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most familiar text is probably Herrick's 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.' Full texts are provided in the booklet, but Williams's diction makes referring to them virtually unnecessary.
The six-minute-long 'Wedding Canticle' for mixed choir, flute and guitar is set to Psalm 128 -- 'Blessed are they that fear the Lord and walk in his ways...' -- a text used in the Anglican wedding ceremony. Flutist Daniel Pailthorpe joins guitarist French, weaving filigree in and around the simple, gentle choral sound.
Not enough can be said for the Clare College Choir and the Farnham Youth Choir. Their contribution is impeccably tuned, musically shaped and entirely engaging.