Cambridge Singers / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

John Rutter: The Gift of Life; Seven Sacred Pieces

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When this release appeared in late 2015, it shot up the British classical charts and made strong inroads in the U.S. as well. The reason was strong anticipation: the major work on the album, The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation, was Rutter's first extended choral work in a decade. Rutter has mostly specialized in short, often a cappella, works suitable for ordinary choirs, but here he writes not just a longer piece but one whose individual parts, most of them at seven or eight minutes, are longer than his usual pieces. And they're accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rutter himself. All the usual virtues of Rutter's music and recordings are here. He is an extremely adept selector of texts, with The Gift of Life moving from the Book of Common Prayer to New England hymnody to Rutter's own poetry, and making it seem effortlessly of a piece. Rutter puts the texts in terms of there being no standard observance of life-giving to correspond to the Requiem mass (which he has also set), and Rutter's handling of his handpicked Cambridge Singers is exemplary. They adapt beautifully to the larger scale of the music. Which leaves that music itself, which you will probably receive according to your existing attitude toward Rutter. For his fans, the music is warm and well-shaped, with great sensitivity toward text intelligibility and an even greater level of general accessibility than usual. The album is rounded out by a group of shorter pieces, all recent, and the limpid trio of Christmas works at the end goes nicely with everything else and makes the entire album a good seasonal choice. Rutter's detractors will find the quotient of religious sentimentality here even higher than in his shorter pieces; something about the orchestral medium pushes Rutter in the direction of manipulative effects rooted in very simple tonality. Sample track six, the finale of The Gift of Life, to discover into which camp you might fall. In short, you pay your money and you take your choice. Where there's no debate is in the quality of engineering; the included texts are hardly necessary, because you'll be able to understand every word.

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