Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Brilliant Classics

O Magnum Mysterium. Music for Christmas
Samuel SCHEIDT: Cazon super intradam aechiopicam
Hieronymus PRAETORIUS: Magnificat
Samuel SCHEIDT: In Dulci jubilo
Giovanni GABRIELI: Angelus ad Pastores; O Magnum Mysterium; Salvator Noster
Biagio MARINI: Canzon Otta à 6
Angus Davidson (counter-tenor)
His Majestyís Sagbutts & Cornetts
Corydon Singers/Matthew Best
Filmed in Stationerís Hall, London
Francis POULENC: Quatre Petites Prières de St. François díAssise; Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël; Litanies à La Vierge Noire*; Salve Regina; Exultate Deo
Simon Over (organ)*
Corydon Singers/Matthew Best
Filmed at St. Giles, Cripplegate, London, 1996?
PAL DVD 16:9. All formats


I think that the title of this DVD is a bit misleading. The contents of the first half, comprising German and Italian baroque items are, if not specifically Christmas music in every case, at least music that can legitimately be connected with that festival. On the other hand, with the exception of his specifically Christmas motets, none of the Poulenc pieces has any such seasonal connection. In fact, what we seem to have here is a compendium of two recitals by the Corydon Singers that are otherwise unconnected. This is potentially a trap for the unwary impulse purchaser.

However, provided those who buy the DVD donít mind that it doesnít contain Christmas music exclusively there is a good deal to enjoy. In particular, this is an opportunity to hear Matthew Best and his fine choir in music, which, so far as I am aware, is otherwise absent from their extensive and consistently excellent discography.

We may well be living in a golden age of choral singing for there is an abundance of excellent chamber choirs currently before the public (in many cases the personnel is interchangeable, of course.) Among such groups the Corydons must be counted among the very finest. Iíve got many of their CDs in my collection and have also been lucky enough to experience them in concert a few times. Never have I been disappointed. I think part of the reason for their excellence may lie in the fact that their conductor, Matthew Best, is himself not only a fine and experienced singer but also pursues a very active and successful career as a soloist. (Only a few weeks ago I heard him give an exceptionally fine performance in the role of Judas in the centenary performance of Elgarís Apostles in Symphony Hall, Birmingham.) Clearly Best knows the art of singing expertly and from the inside. He uses that knowledge to get excellent results from his singers.

It was only while watching their Poulenc performances here that another thought struck me. I may be wrong but I wonder if thereís a slightly wider age range in this choir than is the case with similar, rival ensembles? Most of the expert professional choirs on the circuit these days seem to include a predominance of young singers who bring great freshness to the sound. Many such singers are present in the ranks of the Corydons but there are also quite a few who are a bit older. This combination, I suspect, helps to produce the full toned yet bright edged sound characteristic of the choir.

In the baroque part of the programme the choir is joined by His Majestyís Sagbutts & Cornetts who provide sonorous support, playing their period instruments, which are fascinating to see. The first and last items in this part of the programme are, in fact instrumental. I thought the piece by Scheidt was more interesting than the Canzon by Marini. The Magnificat by Praetorius is a splendidly festive offering. In between the verses of the canticle itself the composer inserts verses from old German carols. Thereís a verse from Josef lieber, Josef mein and all the remaining interpolations are verse of In dulci jubilo. Itís a most enjoyable piece, winningly performed here. Rich sonorities predominate but Best ensures that the rhythms are well sprung so thereís no feeling of heaviness. One slight snag is that here and elsewhere the contributions of counter-tenor Angus Davidson donít always cut through the texture. We can see heís singing but sometimes we canít hear him properly, which is a pity.

The visual presentation allows us to see the different forces required and the varying ways in which they are deployed in the baroque items, especially those by Gabrieli His O Magnum Mysterium is given with the right degree of awe-struck mystery. The following Salvator Noster features some particularly effective florid accompaniment from the instrumentalists.

The Poulenc items were filmed in a different location and a slightly more resonant acoustic. Two of the selections call for smaller groups of singers. A group of men sing the Prayers of St. Francis, exquisite but rather austere settings. The singing here is as splendid as elsewhere in the programme. Thereís a firm bass foundation and an excellent, ringing tenor line. The singersí French is very good. A small group of the ladies also have an item to themselves in the shape of the Litanies to the Black Virgin [of Rocamadour]. This is also sung in French and the singing strikes me as being supple and dedicated.

The remaining items use full mixed choir and I was interested to see that in these items Best uses a larger group of singers than anywhere else on the DVD. The devoted and sophisticated Salve Regina is well communicated (what a wonderful, unexpected harmonic sequence Poulenc employs on the very last word of all, "Maria"!) The ebullient Exultate Deo brings the proceedings to an emphatic close. Earlier Best and his singers perform Poulencís Christmas motets. The more I hear these four exquisite miniatures the more I think they are, perhaps, the finest music that the French master wrote. Itís such wonderful, luminous music. The best of all, I think, is the opening O Magnum Mysterium. Here the heavenly melody is floated seraphically by the Corydon sopranos, just as it should be. Later the tenors distinguish themselves with some lovely, sappy tone. In fact, the tenor line is crucial to Poulencís textures throughout these motets and the Corydon tenors never let him down. The other three motets come off equally well. The concluding Hodie Christus natus est features some finely disciplined rejoicing.

Throughout the whole programme, the performances are presented "straight" in the sense that what we see is a visual representation of a concert performance with no illustrative shots of, say, the venue. If this sounds like a recipe for dull viewing, itís not, for throughout the DVD thereís a good but never distracting variety of camera shots. In the baroque section I thought that sometimes the film track was minutely out of synchronization with the soundtrack but this isnít a major distraction and thereís no such issue in the Poulenc items. Heard through my television set the stereo sound seemed perfectly satisfactory.

The presentation is pretty basic. As you might expect with a budget priced DVD there are no extra features. The documentation is shoddy, Iím afraid. There are no notes and though texts are provided this aspect is downright slipshod. For a few items both the texts and English translations are supplied but in the case of the Poulenc Christmas motets, all of which are set in Latin the Latin text of one is supplied while for the other three only a French text is supplied.

The performances are the main thing here and since these are uniformly excellent this DVD can be recommended.

John Quinn


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