In this fine disc of largely unfamiliar Renaissance choral music (although by some familiar composers) the two choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, bring together compositions written in honour of their patron saint. Written around the time of the college’s foundation in 1473, or within the century after that, the repertoire comprises a sequence of Latin motets written by various composers around Europe. Six of them are preceded by plainchants (from the distinctive ‘Sarum’ corpus) which form the structural basis of those works. All but one of the chants are sung – with fluid, flexible ease – by the college’s separate girls’ choir, who also provide a lithe and luminous account of Gombert’s intriguing four-part ‘Virgo sancta Katherina’ for upper voices alone, with its rigorously imitative sections (almost a succession of canons) remaining agile and precise under Edward’s Wickham’s direction.
For the rest of the disc, the full, mixed voice choir generally sings with a mellow blend that suits the small acoustic of its College chapel in which the programme was recorded. The sound is somewhat dry, but it results in intimate readings of this music, which tend to flow steadily, without privileging one vocal part over another. Within Wickham’s overall consistency of approach, there is sufficient variety in timbre and pacing to hold attention. In Jacquet of Mantua’s ‘Inclita sancta virginis Catherinae’, the tenor and bass lines sound deliberately hollow to bring out the work’s emphasis on lower textures whilst, after the leisurely plainsong opening to Senfl’s ‘Ave Katherina martir’, the sopranos take off angelically in their higher tessitura. If the rising phrases in the depths of one passage in Mouton’s ‘Ave virginum gemma’ are a little stodgy, the men’s rightly subdued plainsong incantation at the beginning of the anonymous motet ‘Katherinae collaudemus’ (which is actually the melody of the well-known Eucharistic chant ‘Pange lingua’) gives way effectively to the lively proliferation of polyphonic parts which follows, and some dynamic sequences of chords later on.
Subtle gradations in tempo and dynamics are evinced elsewhere, such as the effective slowing down for the last few bars of Mouton’s aforementioned motet, and the generally urgent performance of Vermont’s ‘Virgo flagellatur’ reaches a climax with the increased volume of its conclusion. Frye’s Kyrie trope ‘Deus creator omnium’ from his Missa Nobilis et pulchra is sung calmly and coolly, but could do with more momentum and fire, whilst the “Alleluias” of the Mouton motet might have been more lively for the sake of contrast. But these performances rarely pall otherwise as the choir sings expressively with a fair richness of tone, sometimes utilising a modicum of vibrato such as in the tender waves of sound which succeed one another in Willaert’s ‘O gemma clarissima’.
Concluding the disc is the remarkable, 15-minute ‘Gaude rose sine spina’ by Richard Fawkyner, found in the Eton Choirbook. The complex interwoven contrapuntal lines are seamlessly spun, the tricky rhythms remain tight and secure, and the music’s reduction to three parts for some stretches is movingly handled without loss of momentum to the work’s overall large span, with only a few lapses in intonation.
This is a highly creditable release from a college choir who demonstrate that it can offer something of equal interest to their better-known peers up the road in Cambridge at King’s, St John’s, Trinity, and Clare Colleges.