The Rodolphus Choir on Signum Classics

Review Published: 30 January 2011


Rodolfus ChoirThe Rodolfus Choir was founded by Ralph Allwood in the early 1980s for singers aged 16-25 who have attended Eton Choral Courses and who are intending to apply for university choral scholarships. Their sound is, unsurprisingly, light, nimble, accurate, quintessentially English and endlessly attractive. It is fair to say that few people are likely to be disappointed by their recordings, since they typify all that has made the English choral sound such a successful global export.

The three albums that comprise their Choral Collection illustrate the impressive breadth of Allwood's musical interests and expertise. Thomas Tallis: Latin & English Motets and Anthems (2004) is a generous programme of works which mixes the familiar (If ye love me, Loquebantur variis linguis, etc.) with some lesser known (Thou Wast, O God). Although Tallis has almost always been the staple diet of English choirs, the last twenty years or so have placed an emphasis on smaller ensemble recordings. Notably Andrew Parrott's excellent two-disc programme with his Taverner Choir and, of course, the many superb performances by the indefatigable Peter Phillips with his Tallis Scholars. So influential have these smaller-scale, more nuanced recordings been that it is a refreshing change to hear The Rodolfus Choir in this repertoire.

They may be a large choir by today's Tallis standards but their ensemble is tight and their singing vibrant. I wonder though if, at times, they are perhaps somewhat over-nuanced for their size. My preference for choirs singing sixteenth-century repertoire is for them to do less 'interpreting' than a smaller ensemble might attempt. Certain points in Sancte Deus for instance come too close to fussy for my tastes: the dotted note on 'Nunc, Christe' is a good example. Such 'choral technique' I prefer kept in the background.

Francis Grier: Twelve Anthems (1994) begins in a blaze of glory with Let us invoke Christ written for John Scott and St Paul's Cathedral Choir in 1993. The Rodolfus Choir navigate the complicated architecture of this piece with panache and sound simply superb in the resonant chapel at Eton College. The high quality of the smaller solos drawn from choir members is also noticeable and since Signum have provided a choir list on this disc (unlike the Tallis) it is also possible to note that many of Allwood's line-up have become well-respected soloists and consort singers today. Clearly The Eton Choral Course is a valuable experience.

Grier's music is, to coin an over-used phrase, deeply spiritual. His knowledge of Eastern music and liturgy provides a mystical under-current to his sumptuous vocal writing without ever descending to pastiche. Because of the intensity of his writing, the disc makes for heavy listening in one sitting, but each anthem on its own withstands repeated listening, making this a valuable anthology of Grier's work. Listen, in particular, for James Bowman's exquisite solos in Day after Day. Beautifully written and executed.

By Special Arrangement: Choral arrangements of favourite classics (1995-1999) is a collection ranging from the famous Agnus Dei (Barber: Adagio for Strings Op11) to a rather lovely arrangement of Litanei (auf das Fest aller Seelen) (Schubert: D. 343) by Allwood himself. Ben Parry, whose arrangement of Mozart's Ave verum corpus  (k618) is featured, also directs the choir in selected tracks on this disc.

On the whole I enjoyed this selection of music. Allwood has carefully avoided arrangements that would make the choir sound overly 'English' or 'buttoned up', which is always a danger with choral arrangements. However, the David Willcocks arrangement of Widor's Toccata, Sing!, is surprisingly pedestrian, considering the sheer volume of his much-loved Christmas-carol arrangements, and as such is a disappointing end to an otherwise charming disc.

Any misgivings I may have had about obvious choral technique in the Tallis disc are completely overturned in Choral Music by Herbert Howells (2009). Here The Rodolfus choir display an obvious affinity with this composer whose choral philosophy seems to be best distilled into the phrase 'quasi lento'. Without ever sinking into sheer indulgence Allwood and his choir absorb the long unhurried phrases of Howells and this is simply one of the most attractive discs of his music I have heard. Even the famous A Spotless Rose, recorded so many times before, has a freshness to it. A Grace for 10 Downing Street is also worth hearing not only for its Walton connections but also as an illustration of just how skilfully Howells can create his trademark slow unfolding atmosphere in short choral forms. This disc cannot be recommended highly enough; the music is simply beautiful and the performances are beautifully simple.

By Ed Breen