The music of John Rutter consistently provokes mixed reactions amongst musical circles. There are those who cannot stand it, seeing it as tasteless and even annoying; some enjoy certain aspects of his output but do not love it all; some can find nothing but praise for it. As one who has performed various works and arrangements of his, I feel that it certainly can be overly 'saccharine' in the light of the other serious classical music being written today - yet it is unfailingly well-written, offering genuine challenges to those who perform it. And beyond all the sugary melodies and soupy harmonies, Rutter is capable of producing moments of real heart-wrenching emotion. Indeed, it says much of him that he can create memorable, 'hummable' tunes in an age wherein such a skill is perhaps looked upon as anachronistic.
It certainly says much of Rutter that this is now the second disc that the elite Hyperion company have devoted entirely to his music. Those who know and love his "Requiem" through its many commercially-available recordings will recognise many similar elements in "Gloria," obviously a more exubrant and joyful concert work, which is presented here with an effective scoring for organ, brass and percussion. It is at a glance reminiscent of a concerto, with three movements (two loud and fast ones, sandwiching a slower central movement) and recurring themes that are tossed between chorus and accompaniment. The opening is immediately characteristic of Rutter: the combined rhythms and fanfare-like motifs make it sound almost like the opening to some hit musical, and contrast is provided by utterances of unaccompanied chorus in which harmony is the most interesting element. The second movement - "Domine Deus" - features a gently undulating, flute-like solo from the organ, which is worked through gentle brass chorales and beautifully crafted sung passages, with a genuinely moving use of solo sopranos and altos. The third movement - "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" - brings back the boppy nature of the first movement, and quite startlingly includes what appears to be a fugue in the chorus parts! As a whole, it is easy to see why this work is not perhaps as popular as the "Requiem," but it is no less full of worthwhile things to listen out for.
The rest of the disc is made up of various church pieces, several of which are widely used as church anthems throughout England and beyond - "As the bridegroom to his chosen" and "Thy perfect love" are especially popular for their memorable tunes. Two of the unaccompanied works are quite arresting: "Come down, O love Divine," with its echoes of Herbert Howells and 'open ended' concluding cadence, and the tiny "Clare Benediction," dating from Rutter's time as Director of Music at that Cambridge College Chapel - for this, he provided his own text and the result is as potent as any large-scale choral masterpiece could be. There are also a few that are less well-known, and indeed one which has only recently been premiered - "I my Best-Beloved's am," first performed by Polyphony under Stephen Layton. These pieces (with the exception of "Praise the Lord, O my soul" and "Te Deum," which are accompanied by the same forces as in "Gloria") feature Rutter's own orchestrations, which can either heighten or ruin their effectiveness, depending upon your point of view - I was hoping to hear these with organ accompaniment, as they would be heard in a typcial church service. On the other hand, these arrangements show a fine sense of orchestral colour and demonstrate Rutter's penchant for making his music as useful as possible to all manner of performers, whether they specialise in the church or the concert platform.
Polyphony make light work of this programme. The works with organ, brass and percussion, recorded in the generous but subtle acoustics of Winchester Cathedral, suffer slightly from a poor balance: I am surprised that Hyperion were unable to save the choir from being drowned in the loudest and most climactic moments, wherein we lose not only the words but (nearly!) the voices themselves. Then again, the problem might also have been solved by augmenting the choir with extra singers - Polyphony is after all a chamber choir, whereas "Gloria" was clearly intended for choral societies with hundreds of massed voices. The anthems fare much better: recorded in the dry acoustics of a London church, supported by the small but potent forces of the City of London Sinfonia, Polyphony really get to the heart of these pieces. Stephen Layton directs well too - fast pieces are treated with vigour whereas the slower and more intimate ones are allowed to 'breathe' in a natural way that avoids sounding "hammy."
If you're approaching Rutter for the first time, I wouldn't recommend starting with this disc; the "Requiem" is a far better work to begin with. However, if you're already a 'Rutterphile,' then there is no reason to hesitate: this makes for rewarding listening.