* Worth hearing
*** Essential listening
CHRISTMAS CHORAL CDs
O HOLY NIGHT: A MERTON CHRISTMAS
Choir of Merton College / Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Benjamin Nicholas
Casting one’s eyes down the playlist there are some familiar titles. Closer inspection reveals quite a number to be from the traditional, venerable stable that is OUP’s Carols for Choirs collections – and the green and orange books in particular! Willcocks’s arrangement of Away in a manger and Pearsall’s eight-part In dulci jubilo are included alongside newer fare. The CD states that many of these are director Benjamin Nicholas’s favourites. Thus we are treated to John Rutter’s All bells in paradise and the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol. These are performed with excellent accompaniment from the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, which with 27 players is quite sizeable for the college choir of 33 singers and organ. Willcocks’s splendid brass fanfare introductions to Hark the herald and O come all ye faithful are included here. Berlioz’s Shepherds’ Farewell is beautifully sung and sensitively accompanied by the orchestra. I’m struck by the excellent sound balance; keeping the orchestra and organ levels from drowning a choir is a challenge for the person at the mixing desk and congratulations must go to engineer Paul Baxter. O Holy Night, the title piece, is sung and played with freshness and energy.
I must mention some of the choir-only pieces – Bob Chilcott’s exquisite The Shepherd’s Carol is given expression and control by the singers as is Hadley’s timeless I sing of a maiden. The CD ends with Morton Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium – a work that has quickly gained a place in the choral repertoire alongside those traditional favourites that are a vital part of the Christmas season.
ON CHRISTMAS NIGHT
Exeter College Chapel Choir / Bartosz R. Theide (organ) / Tim Muggeridge
OxRecs Digital OXCD-135
This is a splendid CD and very different in content and concept from Merton’s. It is the chapel choir’s first recording of festive music since it became a mixed-voice choir in 1996. Another notable fact is that Exeter College Choir is the only Oxbridge institution under the direction of a student organ scholar. The financial outlay to make a CD isn’t cheap either; this has been financed by crowd-funding. This compilation consists of contrasting and diverse compositions drawn from the past 100 years. By and large it is a collection of reflective pieces beautifully sung with supportive accompaniment from organist Bartosz R. Theide.
We begin with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The truth sent from above, followed immediately by the striking sonorities of Arvo Pärt – his Bogoróditse Djévo and Magnificat. What’s noticeable straightaway is the choir’s excellent blend. We continue with Herbert Howells, who is represented by A spotless rose and Here is the little door. Other composers include Carl Rutti (his Three Carols), Will Todd, James Whitbourn, and Jonathan Dove. The latter’s The Three Kings is not easy and this choir acquits itself excellently. If you think that some of John Rutter’s work can incline towards the trite, listen to his Hymn to the Creator of Light – a piece of substantial and challenging writing for unaccompanied choir – which is given a confident airing here, and in tune too. The final work is Bob Chilcott’s On Christmas Night – a contemplative and gentle sequence of eight movements setting traditional texts. Interwoven with Chilcott’s lyrical style are several well-known carols such as Once in royal and Silent Night. It was a delight to hear old English pronunciation for ‘Adam lay ybounden’. Congratulations must go to the organ scholar at the time of recording – Tim Muggeridge. This is an excellent and well-thought out compilation with beautiful singing.
CHRISTMAS CARD CAROLS
John Turner · Intimate Voices / Sasha Johnson Manning (soprano) / Richard Simpson (oboe) / Anna Christensen (harp) / John Turner (recorder) / Christopher Stokes · Divine Art dda25161
Press ‘Play’, Track One. ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’ sings a soprano soloist. ‘Not very far,’ comes the SATB response. With just a handful of singers, oboe, harp and recorder we do indeed enter a very different, intimate sound world from the Oxbridge college chapel choirs reviewed above. This is a collection of carols composed by the Manchester-based recorder player John Turner. He’s played with leading orchestras such as the Hallé and English Chamber Orchestra, and recorder concertos have been written for him by the likes of Kenneth Leighton, Alan Bullard and John Casken.
This CD of Turner’s compositions is a pleasing, seasonal listen. In the accompanying booklet he explains that each Christmas he would send a specially composed carol to his friends. There are 21 such works, plus one early carol and, as he puts it, an instrumental piece sent as a Christmas card one year when inspiration failed! As far as words go, there’s no shortage of source material: John Turner has tapped familiar and much-loved texts – ‘Adam lay ybounden’, ‘I sing of a maiden’, ‘Away in a manger’ to name but three. There is some marvellous word-painting here – the rocking rhythm for example in Christmas Lullaby or the medieval vibe in Gloria Carol, a rather busy piece for SSA (published by the RSCM). Turner’s style is pleasantly melodic, though angular in places. Singers have to have their chromatic wits about them; the well-blended Intimate Voices directed by Christoper Stokes give effortless fluent performances throughout. The CD is well-recorded too.
O NATA LUX: CONTEMPLATIVE CHRISTMAS CLASSICS
Gentlemen Singers · Convivium Records CR044
The Gentlemen Singers are a professional male octet from Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, who champion sacred music there, commissioning it as well as singing it. They are joined by soprano Kamila Zbořilová on this beautiful CD of Advent and Christmas music that includes three of Margaret Rizza’s ‘O’ Antiphons: O Sapientia, O Clavis David and O Oriens. English-language works range from Byrd’s Lullaby, my sweet little baby to Tavener’s The Lamb. The title track is Morten Lauridsen’s O nata lux, sung with a rapt intensity that captures the heavenly light of the text. Stephen Hatfield has arranged Gaudete and his own version of Beacon Hill Carol specifically for these singers. Jakub Kubín has arranged for them the Polish carol Lulajze Jezuniu, sung here with sincerity and simplicity – such a contrast to the ‘three tenors’ version! There is an intimacy about the performances that is well-captured by the recordings – the whole disk draws one into the preparation for and the mystery of the Incarnation. Highly recommended, especially perhaps for when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas and focus on what it is really about.
CANTIQUE DE NOËL: FRENCH MUSIC FOR CHRISTMAS FROM BERLIOZ TO DEBUSSY
Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge / Michael How and Luke Fitzgerald (organ) / Ursula Perks (piano) / Geoffrey Webber · Delphian DCD34197
This disc is an ear-opener if, like me, you know most French 19th and early 20th-century Christmas choral music only in polite Anglicized arrangements. Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noël – the title track and first item on the CD – is a case in point where Webber and his musicians give us the original French text, an ardent song of deliverance, and Adam’s original harmonies in a new version (with choir and organ) of the voice and piano original. There is music by Berlioz (the final chorus ‘O mon âme’ from L’enfance du Christ as well as the expected ‘L’adieu des bergers’), Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Massenet, and the comparatively little-known Baron Fernand de La Tombelle who wrote a charming Noël au village during World War I – an anecdote describes how one of the movements (included on the disc) was sung at Christmas 1917 by French prisoners in a prisoner-of-war camp, with the text translated into German for their captors.
As well as the original pieces, there are French arrangements of French carols, including Quelle est cette odeur agréable, Quittez, pasteurs and Noël nouvelet all by Roques, and Il est né le divin enfant and Noël d’enfants by Fauré. Even more unexpected is an arrangement by Gounod of Portuguese Hymn, i.e. ‘O come, all ye faithful’, complete with an ‘Original Pastoral Interlude’ for organ with a musette drone that reappears at the end for the Amen. Throughout, the singers’ French pronunciation is admirable. The recording was made in Exeter College, Oxford with its ‘French Romantic’ 1994 Walker organ.
LUMEN DE LUMINE: MUSIC FOR THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
Choir of Oriel College, Oxford / David Maw · OxRecs Digital OXCD-139
The Christmas season, for the purposes of this CD, lasts from Advent to Candlemas, or from track 1 ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’ arranged by Maw to track 23 Lumen ad revelationem (organ solo) by Dupré. Well-known compositions (for example Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and di Lasso’s Omnes de Saba) and arrangements (Wood, Willcocks, etc.) sit next to the little known, such as the 18th-century Czech František Tůma’s Canticum Simeonis and Judith Bingham’s striking two-year-old Oriel Magnificat. Seventeen choral pieces are broken up by six organ works, including two noëls, two pieces by Dupré, Gigout’s Rhapsodie sur des Noëls and Bach’s powerfully expressive Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf. The mixed-voice undergraduate choir sings with good intonation, clear textures and a nice sense of line and direction. The CD may lack any single stand-out feature on which to hang a recommendation, but the varied juxtapositions of idioms and textures organized within the structure the church year provide an enjoyable sequence of contrasting items.
AN ELY CHRISTMAS
Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Ely Cathedral / Aaron Shilson (organ) / Sarah MacDonald· Regent REGCD527
This is a most enjoyable mixture of Christmas favourites along with five first recordings of pieces by Ben Parry, Gary Higginson, Matthew Larkin, Annabel Rooney and Bernard Trafford, whose Sir Christèmas won the BBC Radio Three 2017 carol competition. The girls’ choir, now 12 years old, is one of the strongest UK cathedral girls choirs; the singers are all boarders at King’s Ely, and have excellent tone, whether powerful or at the softest end of the spectrum. I particularly enjoyed some of the recently composed but not completely new carols, such as Will Todd’s My Lord has come and Paul Mealor’s A spotless rose. Simon Lole’s slightly older Love came down at Christmas receives a particularly well-judged performance, while Peter Gritton’s Follow that star sounds as though it was as much fun for the young singers to perform as it is to listen to.
Libera / Robert Prizeman · Invisible Hands Music IHCD85
Last year Libera released Hope, which I reviewed favourably in these columns. If you’ve not come across them, Libera is what I described as an ‘alternative boy band’ on the church music scene – a group of south London-based lads aged 7–16, run by Robert Prizeman. The group has toured the USA and the Far East and has often appeared on television. Like Hope, this is a collection of more meditative pieces, setting traditional religious texts accompanied by a small orchestra – in some cases using familiar compositions. Prizeman’s arrangement of Sanctus for example, is based on Pachelbel’s Canon. Lacrymosa, based on Saint-Saëns’ underwater ‘Aquarium’ from the Carnival of the Animals, is a splendid and haunting arrangement with the boys singing in three parts, a treble soloist, and with that busy, arpeggiated piano part underneath. Tavener’s beautiful Mother of God brings this CD to a close with a subtly modulated synthesized sound (at least I don’t think it’s boys’ lower voices) accompanying the boys underneath.
Some splendid photographs of the boys in concert, on tour and behind the scenes are included in the accompanying CD booklet of what is a glossy production. One has to remember that these are ordinary – and very musical – lads who also sing at services in south London churches. I would like to see a ‘Libera Plus’ group emerge sometime – after all, there must be a constant stream of what are called boys’ changing voices.