“…Perhaps it is timely to reflect on the immense riches of hymnody built up over so many centuries, and to be reminded of them at a time when they are at risk of neglect.”—John Rutter, in the liner notes of Sing Ye Heavens
Usually when people think of contemporary music, they think of pop, rock, and country. Yet classical and traditional songs are not lost in the 21st century; indeed, they are still being written. John Rutter is a modern conductor, composer, and arranger, and has a beautiful way of interpreting music. Born in London in 1945, Rutter studied at Clare College, Cambridge, and has led a prestigious career in music, becoming one of the foremost choral arrangers and conductors in the world. He is most well-known for the music albums he has released with the Cambridge Singers, a group he formed in 1981. Rutter has recorded too many albums to mention in one review, but some of the most notable are Sing Ye Heavens, The Sprig of Thyme, and Blessing.
The subtitle of Sing Ye Heavens is “Hymns for All Time,” and the twenty-one choral pieces featured on the album are just that: timeless songs of adoration to God. The album begins with a majestic arrangement of “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” perfectly suited to the powerful lyrics written by Isaac Watts. Throughout the album, Rutter shows how he takes great care arranging each hymn, making sure that the sounds he creates fit perfectly with the mood of each song. For instance, in his arrangements of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Amazing Grace,” Rutter uses harp accompaniment, creating a contemplative and peaceful mood; in the glorious songs “A Mighty Fortress,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and “Christ is Made a Sure Foundation,” Rutter uses brass instruments, the timpani, and the organ to accompany the choir. There are also a number of Gregorian chants on the album which Rutter did not arrange.
Rutter shows the same good taste in his conducting of English folk songs on the album The Sprig of Thyme. In total the Cambridge Singers perform twenty-five songs on this album, but the pieces are divided up according to their arranger and accompaniment. The first eleven songs are arranged by John Rutter for choir and mixed chamber ensemble; the next eight songs are also arranged by Rutter, but this time for unaccompanied voices; the last six pieces are arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, also for unaccompanied voices. The songs range from somber to playful to mysterious to romantic, with titles like “The Bold Grenadier,” “I Know Where I’m Going,” “Afton Water,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “O Waly, Waly,” “Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron,” “The Lark in the Clear Air,” and “She Moved Through the Fair.”
Harp accompaniment is used extensively on many of Rutter’s albums, and so it is no surprise that in 2012, Rutter and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch released Blessing, an album of seventeen compositions for the harp. Some of the pieces featured, such as “A Gaelic Blessing” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” Rutter originally wrote for choir, but here arranged for harp, strings, and woodwinds. Rutter also rewrote his harpsichord and strings composition “Suite Antique” for harp and string accompaniment, renaming it “Suite Lyrique.” This piece has six movements, all of which are, as its name suggests, extremely lyrical. Catrin Finch also contributed a composition to the album in the form of her three-movement “Celtic Concerto.” The other pieces on the album include lullabies and traditional Welsh songs, the most notable of which is “Migldi Magldi,” a fun song arranged for bassoon and harp. This beautiful, rather autumnal album fittingly ends with Rutter’s “A Clare Benediction,” sung by Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and accompanied by the harp.
These three albums by John Rutter are by no means the only ones worth listening to, for he has recorded many beautiful works. But Sing Ye Heavens, The Sprig of Thyme, and Blessing are wonderful examples of how full of variety Rutter’s pieces are, and they speak volumes of his gift as a composer, arranger, and conductor.
♪ The Cambridge Singers, directed by John Rutter. Sing, Ye Heavens – Hymns for All Time. Collegium Records, 2000.
♪ The Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia, directed by John Rutter. The Sprig of Thyme: Traditional Songs. Collegium Records, 2005.
♪ Rutter, John and Catrin Finch. Blessing. Deutsche Grammophon, 2012.