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Christmas Music by Candlelight. Alleluya a new work
John TAVENER (b.1944) O, do not move*
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934): In the bleak mid-winter
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943): O magnum Mysterium
Peter WISHART (1921-84): Alleluya, a new work is come on hand
Roderick WILLIAMS (b. 1965): O Adonai*
Samuel BARBER (1910-81): Twelfth Night
Philip SHEPPARD (b. 1969): Christmas at sea*
Trad. Czech: Teče voda teče
Daryl RUNSWICK (b. 1946): O Clavis David*
Ritual 1631: Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Sidney CARTER (b. 1915): Every star shall sing a carol
Peter WARLOCK: (1894-1930): Bethlehem Down
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-98): Hymne à la Vierge
John GOULD (b. 1940): Sans Day Carol
Fyfe HUTCHINS: (b. 1980): O Emmanuel*
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76): A Boy was born
J. S. BACH (1685-1750): How shall I fitly meet Thee?
*First recording
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
Philip Sheppard (electric cello)
Recorded in Hawksyard Priory, Staffordshire 19 Ė 21 July 2002
EX CATHEDRA EXCCD003 [73í37"]


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Based in the U.K.ís second city, Birmingham, Ex Cathedra was founded in 1969 by Jeffrey Skidmore. Though we hear it on this CD as a chamber choir the organisation is much more than that for under the banner "Ex Cathedra" operates also a vocal consort of 8 Ė 12 singers, a period instrument orchestra and an Educational Programme. For this recording the choir comprises 16 sopranos, 9 altos (four of them male), 9 tenors and 12 basses. They have released CDs on the ASV and Hyperion labels but here they appear on their own eponymous label. Their enterprising and wide-ranging activities can be explored in greater detail at www.ex-cathedra.org.

Iím ashamed to say that this is the first time Iíve heard the choir but Iím enormously impressed both by the quality of the performances and by the enterprise and scope of the programme. I mean it as a compliment when I say that the singing itself calls for little comment. Tuning, blend, balance and diction are well nigh flawless throughout a demanding programme. There are several solo opportunities, all of them demanding and all taken expertly by members of the choir. The sound that the choir makes is consistently pleasing. Their dynamic control is first class and when they sing full out thereís ample power but never the slightest suggestion that the tone is forced.

Some of the music is familiar. Holstís In the bleak midwinter is well known (I happen to think the Harold Darke setting is infinitely more interesting) and Iím bound to say I thought the chosen tempo was just a fraction slow. Warlockís grave, exquisite Bethlehem Down is raptly sung. Again the tempo is very steady (indeed, I canít recall hearing it done quite so slowly) but this time I think the music is better able to take it and, as elsewhere on the disc the singers display immaculate control. The other familiar items by Britten and Villette are also very well done. In the latterís Hymne à la Vierge the sensuous harmonies flow seamlessly and beautifully.

But itís the less well-known music that deserves to catch the ear and, as will be seen from the heading, no fewer than five of the seventeen items on the disc are receiving their première recordings. Most remarkable, perhaps are the three "O" antiphons. These texts are among the series of ancient antiphons recited before and after the Magnificat at vespers on the seven days from 17 December. Starting in 1997, Ex Cathedra has commissioned eight settings of all of these antiphons from various composers. The three presented here are all fascinating. The setting of O Adonai, the antiphon for 18 December, by Roderick Williams comes from 1998. If the composerís name sounds familiar thatís because he is in fact the young baritone who is fast establishing a fine reputation for himself (he was recently heard to excellent effect on the Chandos recording of Dysonís Quo Vadis.) I didnít know he is also a composer but on the evidence of this piece he is an accomplished writer who has something original to say. His setting, which, perhaps appropriately features a baritone soloist, is a dramatic and pleading one that makes a strong impression, well conveying the clamour of a people seeking redemption. Williamsí use of spatial effects is especially striking.

That is also an important feature of Daryl Runswickís setting of O Clavis David (20 December) from 1999. In his liner notes Jeffrey Skidmore explains that this piece was designed "specifically to provide a dramatic end to the first half of Candlelight [Ex Cathedraís annual Christmas recital] with the singers processing out through the audience leaving the church in total darkness." Dramatic stuff indeed! At the start Runswick conjures up a musical hubbub, requiring his singers to employ glissandi and a wide variety of other unusual vocal techniques. About halfway through the piece (3í15"), the point at which the choirís egress presumably begins, the frenetic vocal activity gives way to a more peaceful, repeated choral progression over which a soprano soloist soars and weaves a spectacular line. The singersí recessional is well handled here by the engineers. Runswick has written a fascinating piece though some listeners may find the opening rather strong meat. I suspect it makes an even stronger impression in concert when the visual aspect can be realized.

Impressive though these two compositions are, however, for me the standout piece among these antiphons is Fyfe Hutchinsí O Emmanuel (23 December), written in 2000 when the composer was just twenty years old. What an assured and mature bit of writing this is! Jeffrey Skidmore writes that it is "a remarkably controlled yet passionate realization of an amazing text." Much of the music is written in block chords but thereís ample variety in the textures and the piece is by turns beautiful and dramatic. Frankly, I thought it an inspired setting. Itís not a short piece at 7í44" but it doesnít seem long at all. A remarkable work to which Ex Cathedra respond eloquently.

Among the other less familiar offerings thereís a powerful, strongly projected yet well controlled performance of Samuel Barberís fine setting of words by Laurie Lee. This Iíd heard before but the processional Hanacpachap cussicuinin was completely new to me. Its inclusion represents the choirís interest in South American baroque music and this piece is apparently the oldest printed example of polyphony from that part of the world. Itís dignified yet primitive beauty makes a strong impression, the whole underpinned by the insistent rhythm of a deep tom-tom. What a pity a translation of the text wasnít provided. Another piece receiving its première recording is Philip Sheppardís Christmas at sea. This is a most unusual setting of words by Robert Louis Stevenson in which the choir is accompanied by an electric cello, played here by the composer. The instrument contributes high, spectral wailing sounds that brilliantly evoke the sound of an icy maritime gale whipping through a shipís rigging. There are also sepulchral low notes that suggest the marine depths and the vesselís groaning timbers. Over all this the choir sing the text mainly in chordal harmony to a mock-jaunty shanty rhythm (thereís a brief, stratospheric soprano solo towards the end.) Itís a strange piece to which my description doesnít really do justice. It may not be to all tastes but I found it fascinating and itís certainly a different view of Christmas, just as Stevensonís text was.

The programme opens and closes in extreme simplicity. At the start we hear a recent work by John Tavener. Frankly, he doesnít break any new ground here (for him) but itís a hushed, effective introit, displaying the composerís habitual economy of means. After so much twentieth-century music itís fitting that the last word is with Bach, one of the greatest innovators of all. His serene chorale from the Christmas Oratorio, devotedly sung, brings a touching end to this varied and stimulating programme.

For me the highlight comes quite early on in the programme with a simply superb rendition of Morten Lauridsenís luminous O magnum Mysterium. This rapt piece by the Californian composer is fast becoming a modern classic, and justly so. Here is receives a dedicated, spacious performance. It is a deceptive piece. It sounds simple but it requires consummate control from both singers and conductor. Happily Skidmore and his singers are more than equal to its demands. I particularly like the way that, as the climax develops, the heady tone of the tenors comes through wonderfully but without being obtrusive. Like my colleague, John Phillips, I was greatly impressed by the recording made by the choir that commissioned the piece, the Los Angeles Master Chorale (on RCM 19705). However, I think this present performance just has the edge, simply because I feel that the piece works to best effect with a choir of about this size whereas the Los Angeles choir, though never remotely sounding unwieldy, is much bigger.

I havenít mentioned several pieces, such as the disarmingly beautiful Czech carol. However, I hope Iíve made it clear by now that this is an outstanding release in every way. Good notes, the provision of texts and translations and the excellence of the very natural recorded sound are "just" icing on the cake. This CD offers a discerningly chosen programme, excellently executed. For anyone who has a taste for something enterprising this will be a most welcome addition to their Christmas CD collection.

Sadly, this CD arrived after I had submitted my nominations for Recordings of the Year. Notwithstanding this I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you only buy one CD of Christmas music this year, make sure itís this one.

John Quinn

 

 



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