A Pembroke Christmas
The Choirs of Pembroke College, Cambridge/Anna Lapwood
Emma Johnson (clarinet); Wallis Power (cello)
rec. 2022, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD724 
Anna Lapwood has been Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge since 2016. The College how boasts two choirs: there’s the SATB Chapel Choir, which has 27 singers, and also the Girls’ Choir which Ms Lapwood founded in 2018. The latter group comprises 20 singers aged between 11 and 18 years old; they sing twice weekly at Chapel services during term time and, on occasion, they combine with the Chapel Choir. Both ensembles feature on this disc: the Chapel Choir sings all the pieces and they’re joined by their younger colleagues on nine tracks. The choirs’ debut disc, All Things are Quite Silent, was recorded in 2019 in the same location as this latest one and I enjoyed it very much (review). Earlier this year they released a second CD, entitled Celestial Dawn, which I’ve not heard, though the programme looks most attractive (SIGCD714).
As we learn from Anna Lapwood’s lively booklet notes, it was a session with the Girls’ Choir that proved to be the impetus for this Christmas album. Apparently, in the choir’s last rehearsal before Christmas in December 2019 she let the girls have a fun session and some of them suggested that they should collaboratively make an arrangement of Silent Night. That appears on this album and so too do two more carols which resulted from a subsequent writing weekend for the young musicians. I very much like the results. Silent Night is nicely harmonised but not in a way that overwhelms the essentially simple tune. I also like the way Anna Lapwood keeps the piece moving forward so that it doesn’t cloy. The performance benefits enormously from the pure sound of the singers. Gaudete! is the Girls’ Choir’s take on the traditional medieval carol, set for upper voices. It’s exuberant and also rhythmically vivacious. I won’t spoil the fun surprise at the end. Best of all, I think, is The Pembroke Carol which sets words by Sara Teasdale. The 6/8 rhythm gives the music a lovely lilt and the melody is memorable.
Both as an organist and conductor, Anna Lapwood is a doughty champion of music by female composers – she has the social media hashtag #playlikeagirl – though it should be said that by no means is music by male composers excluded and, so far as I can tell, the inclusion of music by female composers is firmly driven by quality rather than gender. I very much welcome that but, for me, it’s just as exciting that, with one exception, every single piece on this CD is by a living composer. That said, this programme contains several fruits of the policy to promote female composers.
One such is the American Patricia Van Ness. Her Archangelus, which is part of a larger work, is a fantastic opener. The music is inspired by Hildegard of Bingen. There’s just a solitary vocal line which soars acrobatically and atmospherically. Even after repeated listening I’m unsure if the whole piece is sung by one voice or by a small number singing in perfect unison. The music is extremely atmospheric. I also like the two offerings from the Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy. Halcyon Days is the more straightforward; the melodic line is attractive and the harmonies are warm. The setting of the Advent Great ‘O’ antiphon, O Oriens, is musically more ambitious. Dunphy weaves fragments of the plainchant to which the antiphon was first set into her music in a very effective way Her choral textures are inventive and the Pembroke singers rise to the challenges of the piece very successfully.
There are two pieces by composers who have sung in the Pembroke alto section. Indeed, Kethaki Prathivadi is still a member of the choir and took part in this recording. Her setting of a poem by Marion Strobel is very appealing. Lucy Walker is a past member of the choir’s alto section. In My Heart, O God she sets verses from Psalm 57. The harmonic writing is very interesting and the music expresses, to my ears, gentle feminine ecstasy. It’s very fitting that the programme includes a piece by the clarinettist and composer, Emma Johnson. Not only is she an alumna of Pembroke College, she’s now an Honorary Fellow of the College and, in addition, has been the patron of the Girls’ Choir since it was established. She joins the singers for her setting of I Sing of a Maiden. This is part of a set of Songs of Celebration for SSA choir and clarinet which she wrote for the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral in 2019. Only very recently, I reviewed a recording of the full set which Ms Johnson made with the Gloucester Cathedral choristers. I enjoyed it very much then and I liked this Pembroke performance also. Interestingly, it appears that both recordings were made in the same month, March 2022.
Anna Lapwood has also chosen a recent piece by a young male composer, Ben Ponniah. He has written a number of pieces for her and the Pembroke choirs. I really liked Seeing the Star and agree with Ms Lapwood’s description of the harmonies as “lush” – though they’re never cloying. The disc also includes some pieces by composers who have been established for a little longer. Will Todd’s My Lord has come has become, I believe, something of a contemporary Christmas classic. It crops up a lot in seasonal programmes – and rightly so – and I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a few performances myself; it always hits the mark with both singers and audiences. I love its intimacy. It gets a cultivated performance here, though I wonder if the singing could have been a bit more hushed in places. James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn is another piece which has attained great and deserved popularity with choirs. It’s a very fine piece indeed and the present performance is excellent. Roderick Williams’ O Adonai is, I think, the most technically challenging piece on this programme. The music is multi-layered; sopranos, placed at a distance from the other singers, decorate the music from start to finish with elaborate, improvisational lines. Separate from the sopranos and the main choir is a cantor-like role for a baritone, here sung with great confidence and accomplishment by Tom Unwin. The Chapel Choir gives a very fine account of this piece. I should also mention Ola Gjeilo’s Serenity, which is actually a setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’. A telling feature of this piece is the inclusion of a solo cello, here played by Wallis Power, another Pembroke College alumna. The choral writing is lovely and the plaintive cello complements and contrasts with the choir most effectively. According to the booklet, the composer sought in this piece to write something “that came straight from my heart”. I’d say he’s succeeded.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD. The repertoire has been well chosen in such a way as to separate the disc out from the usual run of Christmas fare. The quality of every piece – including those I haven’t mentioned – is very high and though the music is largely contemporary it’s all accessible and enjoyable to hear. The performances are uniformly excellent. The two Pembroke College choirs have clearly been prepared very well by Anna Lapwood; the singing is disciplined and accomplished. But more than that, it sounds as if the choir members are enjoying themselves and they are certainly committed to the music. The programme contains many challenges but all of them are successfully met.
The recording was in the highly experienced hands of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Dave Hinitt. With their pedigree, it comes as no surprise that the choirs have been recorded very sympathetically and clearly.
This is an enterprising disc which will give a lot of pleasure at Christmas.
Patricia Van Ness (b 1951) - The Nine Orders of the Angels: II. Archangelus
Adrian Peacock - Venite, Gaudete!
Melissa Dunphy (b 1983) - Halcyon Days
Melissa Dunphy - O Oriens
Sir James MacMillan (b 1959) - O Radiant Dawn
Emma Johnson (b 1966) - I Sing of a Maiden
Kerensa Briggs (b 1991) - A Tender Shoot
Pembroke Girls’ Choir – Gaudete!
Lucy Walker (b 1998) – My Heart, O God
Kethaki Prathivadi (b 1998) - On Christmas
Roderick Williams (b 1965) - O Adonai
Will Todd (b 1970) - My Lord has come
Eleanor Daley (b 1955) - Huron Carol
Pembroke Girls’ Choir - The Pembroke Carol
Ola Gjeilo (b 1978) - Serenity
Cecilia McDowall (b 1951) - Lo! He Slumbers
Ben Ponniah (b 1984) - Seeing the Star
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) - The Evening Star
Eric Whitacre (b 1970) - Lux Aurumque
Pembroke Girls’ Choir - Silent Night
John Rutter (b 1945) arr Owain Park (b 1993) - The very best time of year
Published: November 9, 2022