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In Winter’s House
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
Camilla Pay (harp); Joshua Davidson (treble)
rec. 2022, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London
Texts included

In his succinct booklet notes, Nigel Short says this: It’s a huge testament to the creative output of so many talented composers that when creating this programme we still seemed to barely scratch the surface of the newly available Christmas repertoire”. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment behind that comment. It’s one of the most pleasing aspects of the choral music scene in the last three or four decades that there seems to have been an explosion of high-quality new Christmas music. It’s why each year I find myself reviewing more Christmas discs than I intended. This latest offering from Tenebrae offers a case in point: eight of the pieces are by living composers and five of these works were new to me.

At the heart of the programme, though, lies a very well-known Christmas work, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, which is sung by the sopranos and altos of Tenebrae. Of course, Britten wrote the piece for boys’ voices and there are places – such as in ‘Wolcum Yole!’ and ‘This little babe’ – where one misses the bite and edge of young male voices. However, there are ample compensations in the sophistication and polish which the adult female singers impart. Actually, we do get to hear one treble voice. Several of the individual carols are for solo voice or voices. In the main these are sung by members of Tenebrae, but ‘That yong child’ is allocated to a treble – and rightly so, I think, because it is particularly suited to that voice type. Joshua Davidson sings it very well indeed: he pitches the challenging intervals with unerring accuracy and sings clearly and confidently. Perhaps we should not be surprised at his accomplishment: not only has he just finished a stint as Head Chorister with the Choir of St John’s College Cambridge, but also his mother is the highly-regarded soprano, Grace Davidson, who is herself a member of Tenebrae and sings some solos on this CD.

Elsewhere, I very much admire the incisiveness of voices and harp in ‘This little babe’, in which great clarity is achieved, and ‘Deo gracias’ is very exciting. I like the lovely, pure sound of Victoria Meteyard in ‘Balulalow’ and I enjoyed her voice again in ‘Spring Carol’ where her voice and that of Grace Davidson complement each other really well. Britten made the inspired decision to use a harp to accompany the voices and Camilla Pay’s contributions are consistently excellent. Her artistry and delicacy are particularly to the fore in the Interlude in which the singers get a rest while the harpist muses on themes from the various carols. With the Procession and Recession expertly and realistically managed by singers and engineers, this is
a very fine account of Britten’s magical set of carols.

The Britten is preceded by a group of Advent carols. I love Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherd’s Carol. He’s written many Christmas pieces and I think this is one of the very best; both words and music are lovely. Tenebrae perform it exquisitely. I’ve heard the Chilcott many times but
Joanna Marsh’s In Winter’s House was new to me. It was written in 2019 for Tenebrae and uses only the tenors and basses. Marsh has set a secular text and the hues of the male voices lend the music a dark tinge – though I hasten to say that the darkness is not oppressive; rather, this is the darkness of a cold, clear winter night. It’s a most interesting piece and I love the way the composer adds a touch of glowing luminescence to the last word, “light”.

I was taken with Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s Advent ‘O’ Carol, which offers a new take on the seven Great ‘O’ antiphons. The piece has an attractive core melody which is enterprisingly varied as the work unfolds. It’s a very attractive composition. Owain Park’s O magnum mysterium is impressive. The music is slow and mysterious and I was intrigued by the way the harmonic language gradually expands in complexity from a fairly simple opening and then recedes back into simplicity. Incidentally, Park, who is attracting a lot of attention these days as both a composer and conductor, is one of the basses in Tenebrae.

The Advent section also includes two much longer established pieces. Vaughan Williams’ The Truth from Above has a haunting beauty which is expertly conveyed here. I was surprised – in a good way – by how well Naylor’s anthem Vox dicentis: Clama complements – and s complemented by – the contemporary pieces. It’s a big, dramatic piece in which Naylor responds to the words most successfully. Tenebrae give a super account of this classic Advent anthem.

After the Britten we hear another excellent selection of individual pieces. I love the disarming simplicity of Sally Beamish’s In the stillness: here it receives a gorgeous performance. June Collin’s The Quiet Heart was a discovery for me – and what a discovery! It’s a setting of lines by James Morgan. The words are lovely and June Collin has responded to them acutely, with music of great beauty. I’m sure the piece requires a choir of Tenebrae’s precision of ensemble and tuning to make its full effect. I think The Quiet Heart is one of the loveliest new Christmas pieces I’ve heard in a long time. That said, I liked very much the rapt beauty of Joseph Phibbs’ Sleep My Pretty One, Sleep, while The Aldeburgh Carol by Ben Parry is very well crafted and makes effective use of a semi-chorus. And once again, two established pieces, this time by Poston and Howells, make welcome appearances in this segment of the programme. The latter’s Sing Lullaby is treasurable and here receives a superb performance.

This disc is right up my street, as you’ve probably gathered. I love the blend of established and new pieces into a wonderfully satisfying programme. One would expect Nigel Short and Tenebrae to perform this music superbly and expectations are more than met. They’ve been recorded most sympathetically in a lovely acoustic by producer Adrian Peacock and engineers Mike Hatch and Tom Lewington.

This is a Christmas disc to savour.

John Quinn

Bob Chilcott - The Shepherd’s Carol
Joanna Marsh - In Winter’s House
Traditional - Angelus ad virginem –
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Truth from Above
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange - Advent ‘O’ Carol
Owain Park - O magnum mysterium
Edward Woodall Naylor - Vox dicentis: Clama
Benjamin Britten - A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28
Sally Beamish - In the stillness
Elizabeth Poston - Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
June Collin - The Quiet Heart
Herbert Howells - Sing Lullaby
Ben Parry - The Aldeburgh Carol
Joseph Phibbs - Sleep My Pretty One, Sleep 

Published: November 24, 2022

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