St Catharine’s College: O Gemma Clarissima

O Gemma Clarissima
Music in Praise of St Catharine
The Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, Edward Wickham
Resonus Classics RES10246. 72’02

Quite by chance, I realize that I am reviewing this recording on the Feast of St Catherine, 25 November. The patron saint of wheelwrights, millers, students, and young unmarried girls, the Cambridge college that now bears her name (which they spell ‘Catharine’) was founded in 1473 as ‘Katherine Hall’. The famous torture wheel that she is usually depicted with was, apparently, destroyed by an angel before it touched her, killing many. After her beheading, more angels whisked her remains off to the Mount Sinai monastery, which became and remains a centre of devotion. A monastery in Rouen also became a pilgrimage site after a monk brought back a finger that “broke off” when he prayed for a relic.

The combined Chapel and Girls’ Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, directed by Edward Wickham here present a programme of Renaissance motets and hymns from the time of the height of the cult of St Catharine. Composers include Palestrina, Willaert, Mouton, and Frye. The motets are each preceded with the chant upon which they are based, sung by the Girls’ Choir, usually aged between eight and fifteen, and the only college-based girls’ choir in the UK.

The pieces are based on the c1260 Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) by Jacobus de Voragine, as described in the CD booklet. If some of the music sounds familiar, it is because several of the pieces to Catherine used chants usually associated with other texts, for example, the Ave maris stella and Pange lingua gloriosi.  The music is varied in mood and texture, and the chants, beautifully sung by the Girls’ Choir, provide moments of repose between the larger-scale pieces.

Edward Wickham is well known for his work with The Clerks’ Group. His choral and vocal experience is clearly being well-transmitted to the students. The singing is very impressive, both from the student choir and the younger girls. Whether or not the focus on St Catherine appeals to you, this recording is well worth a listen, if only to hear some fine music and sensitive and unaffected choral singing.