Into This World This Day Did Come.
Carols Contemporary & Medieval Diana BURRELL (b. 1948) Creator
of the Stars of Night *[5:52] Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) Annunciation*
[6:19] Stuart MACRAE (b. 1976) Adam lay
y-bounden* [5:02] 13th century English Edi beo thu [3:11]
Richard CAUSTON (b. 1971) Cradle
Song* [2:54] Francis POTT (b. 1957) That yongë
child* [4:53] John DUNSTAPLE (c. 1390-1453) Quam
Pulchra es [2:12] Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) Salus
aeterna* [2:54] 16th century English Salvator mundi
Domine [3:57] Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947) To Bethlehem
did they go [2:25] Judith BINGHAM God would be born
in thee [6:06] John REDFORD (d. 1547) Tui sunt
caeli [3:44] Howard SKEMPTON Into this world,
this day did come* [2:50] William SWEENEY (b. 1950) The
Innumerable Christ [3:24] 12th century English Verbum Patris
umanatur [1:22] Diana BURRELL Christo paremus
cantica [2:58] Robin HOLLOWAY (b. 1942) Christmas
Carol [6:24] 15th century English Nowell sing we
[2:51] Judith BINGHAM Incarnation with
shepherds dancing* [3:58] Gabriel JACKSON Nowell sing we
of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber/David Ballantyne,
Matthew Fletcher & Geoffrey Webber (organ)
rec. 3-5 July 2009, St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34075 [75:28]
This CD juxtaposes contemporary Christmas music with seasonal music from medieval times - though, at the risk of seeming pedantic, I’m not sure one can allow that the middle ages stretched as far forward as the sixteenth century! It’s an intriguing combination that has quite a lot of logic to it, not least because so many composers, especially in recent times, have gone back to the middle ages when searching for texts for Christmas music.
The result is an exciting programme that challenges and stimulates the listener. I should think it had the same effect on the performers, at least in terms of challenge, for most if not all of the music in this programme sounds demanding to sing and play. However, Geoffrey Webber’s student choir are fully up to the challenges. Indeed, I strongly suspect that they relish them. The choir comprises seven sopranos, six female altos and five each of tenors and basses. The ensemble may not enjoy the fame of the choirs at some of the other Cambridge colleges but they make a fine show on this disc.
The recital gets off to an arresting start with Diana Burrell’s setting of a seventh-century Vespers hymn for Advent. The choral writing is dramatic but just as noteworthy is the accompaniment. Burrell uses the plaintive timbre of a cor anglais and also some cavernous, primitive sounds produced by organ pedals. The overall effect is to suggest powerfully something that is both new and very old at the same time. Later we hear another piece by Diana Burrell. Her rhythmically vibrant Christo paremus cantica was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; Robin Holloway’s piece and Judith Bingham’s God would be born in thee are likewise King’s commissions.
The second item in the programme also merits special mention. Bingham’s Annunciation for organ solo is a remarkable piece. It begins mysteriously - we’re told by annotator John Fallas, that the instruction in the score is ‘night time, candlelight, apprehension…’The piece is potently atmospheric and it seems to me graphically to suggest how frightening an experience for Mary, a teenage girl, must have been the angelic Annunciation message. The performance by Matthew Fletcher is stunning and the sound of the organ is captured vividly. The comfortable world of ‘The Angel Gabriel from heav’n came’ is a very long way away from this music - and rightly so, I think.
Actually, that well-loved carol melody makes a fleeting appearance later in the programme when Robin Holloway weaves a melodic fragment from the carol we know as Gabriel’s Message into the beginning of his Christmas Carol. Musically and texturally, this is one of the most complex pieces on the disc. I must say I’ve found it challenging to come to terms with listening to it - though it’s far from forbidding - and I’m not quite there yet. I’m equally sure it presents significant challenges to the performers but these young Cambridge musicians seem at ease with it.
Rather more accessible are the pieces by Howard Skempton for his style is less complex than Holloway’s. I love his William Morris setting, To Bethlehem did theygo. The opening lines are richly harmonised and Skempton reprises that material at the end. Between these musical bookends the main section of the carol is infused with what I might term gentle energy. The other Skempton piece, which gives the CD its title, is for high voices only, singing in two-part harmony. This setting of English traditional words has a fresh innocence that I find most appealing.
Many composers have made settings of the medieval text Adam lay y-bounden over the years, notably Boris Ord. The response of Stuart MacRae is very different to Ord’s. He has produced a slow, mysterious piece that I found most attractive. The two Gabriel Jackson settings are very engaging - as this composer’s choral pieces usually are - and I also admired the pieces by Francis Pott and Richard Causton. But I must single out for special mention William Sweeney’s The Innumerable Christ. This is a remarkable, hypnotic composition. Sweeney has chosen some lines in Lowland Scots by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) and he has set them with compelling originality. I can best describe the music by saying that two solo sopranos - the excellent Rose Wilson-Haffenden and Tempe Nell - weave a haunting, complex web of solo lines against a quiet, rich choral background. That prosaic description doesn’t begin to do justice to Sweeney’s superbly imaginative piece, which I hope many collectors will discover for themselves by acquiring this disc.
As I said earlier, this programme challenges and stimulates the listener. Unlike many discs of Christmas music this is most emphatically not one to which one can listen as background music while making the mince pies. There’s skilful, thoughtful music in this programme that demands - and repays amply - serious, concentrated listening. The music bristles with technical difficulties but the performers rise to these challenges and surmount them. The choir sings very well indeed. Their tone is bright, focused and fresh and they sing with clarity and precision. The blend between the voices is also excellent. Geoffrey Webber has clearly trained them expertly. The organists also contribute significantly. As I’ve said, Matthew Fletcher excels in the solo piece by Judith Bingham and he does the solo piece by Diana Burrell, which comes towards the end, equally well. David Ballantyne has no solos per se but he also plays very effectively and Webber himself plays the short solo piece by John Redford.
The recorded sound is first rate. The Belfast organ is reported in all its glory while the choir is atmospherically caught by the microphones with just enough distance put on the voices to give the correct ambience while not sacrificing any detail. Perhaps it helps that engineer, Beth Baxter, is, I believe, a professional singer in her own right? The documentation is excellent, not least the essay by John Fallas.
This is one of the most original and enterprising Christmas discs to have come my way in a long time. Intelligently planned and superbly executed it can be recommended most warmly to all choral music collectors who have an enquiring ear.
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