This most enterprising disc contains
twenty carols by living composers. As
you might expect from the list of composers,
some of the pieces are challenging to
the listener but all are accessible.
In my view, with one exception, they
all refresh and renew the great Western
tradition of Christmas music.
Six of the pieces were
commissioned by the BBC and a further
four were commissioned for Stephen Cleobury’s
"other choir" at King’s College
Cambridge. Signum claim that there are
no less than eight premier recordings
here. Actually, I’m sorry to be pedantic
but that’s not quite right. The John
Harbison carol has been recorded before,
of which more in a moment.
The BBC Singers have
a formidable reputation for versatility
and astonishingly high standards of
choral singing. Everything on this programme
both lives up to and enhances this reputation.
Stephen Cleobury directs excellent performances
and the organ contributions by Robert
Quinney are all splendid. Incidentally,
though it’s not made clear in the documentation,
I assume that it’s the tracks with organ
accompaniment that were recorded at
the Temple Church. The recorded sound
from both venues is first class.
Although the programme
consists of twentieth century music
it is all perfectly accessible but without
any question of dumbing down. It’s fair
to say that the concluding items by
Howard Goodall and John Harle are lighter
in mood and tone but that’s not unwelcome
after an otherwise serious recital.
Goodall’s piece is delightfully open-hearted.
As it says in the succinct notes he
"turns Renaissance Spanish sacred
words into a choral rumba" and
hugely enjoyable it is. The Harle is
a harmless and rather witty piece of
seasonal fun. I should warn listeners,
however, that my review copy had an
(invisible) flaw and after around 1’30"was
unplayable on two of the three CD players
on which I tried it – bizarrely, it
worked best in my car!
I was most impressed
with the performance of Judith Weir’s
very imaginative Illuminare, Jerusalem.
I remember hearing the first performance
of this a good few years ago from the
King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons
and Carols. I didn’t understand it then
but with more familiarity I’ve come
to regard it very highly. I’d go so
far as to say this is the finest performance
I’ve heard of it. The precision and
clarity that the BBC Singers bring to
the piece is tremendous. This expertly
sung and expertly balanced reading brings
out Weir’s startlingly original harmonies
and use of rhythm.
Judith Bingham’s The
Shepherd’s Gift was new to me. It’s
very impressive. The music is haunting
and pensive at first but later, as the
Incarnation is revealed, the setting
has power before relapsing into quietude
again. There’s also a fascinating, independent
organ part. I also enjoyed very much
Bo Holten’s splendid and very beautiful
tapestry of interwoven English medieval
texts, which introduces at one point
the traditional melody of the Coventry
Carol. I wasn’t at all sure what to
expect from Steve Martland’s settings.
In the event I found them very accessible
and very satisfying. The first of them,
From lands that see the sun arise,
moves forward smoothly but purposefully
in compound time. The second, Make
we joy, features buoyant dancing
rhythms and is as effective a response
to the traditional text as the well-known
setting by Walton. Finally There
is no Rose of such virtue alternates
serene, chaste music with more energetic
episodes in an unexpected and successful
Other successes are
the carol by Carl Rütti in which
the Swiss composer takes a traditional
melody and develops it enterprisingly.
The American, Conrad Susa, employs a
text used by Vaughan Williams in Hodie
and gives it an innocent, joyful treatment,
of which a splendidly exuberant organ
accompaniment is an integral part. When,
by the way, is someone going to give
us a recording of Susa’s inventive and
enjoyable A Christmas Garland?
I’ve already mentioned
in passing the piece by another American
composer, John Harbison. This is his
setting of O Magnum Mysterium. I’m
afraid Signum are in error in claiming
this as a first recording. The piece,
which dates from 1991, featured on a
Koch CD of Harbison’s music, which I
suspect is now deleted (3-7310-2 H1).
That recording, made in 1995, was by
the Boston-based Emmanuel Music under
Craig Smith. Both that account and this
new one are very good, though for me
Stephen Cleobury takes the opening section
rather too briskly by comparison with
Craig Smith. The slightly broader speed
adopted by Smith, whose account takes
2’53" overall, enables him to emphasis
more the devotional, mystical aspect
of the music and text. This is a fine
Christmas piece, which I’m delighted
to see, included here.
The items by Thomas
Adès, James MacMillan and Peter
Maxwell Davies are each pretty challenging
to the listener. Adès employs
quite a high degree of dissonance. MacMillan’s
piece, like the Adès another
King’s commission, is yet more demanding.
The searing intensity of the opening
phrases for sopranos and tenors, singing
at the top of their ranges and fortissimo,
is almost aggressive. Even in the quieter
passages the intensity is not reduced.
The spare harmonies impart a real medieval
feel, which is most appropriate. I’d
almost describe this as harrowing music,
but it’s deeply impressive. Unfortunately
the Maxwell Davies item is the only
one for which the text is not printed,
presumably due to copyright issues.
This gave me a problem in that I found
it difficult to make out the words –
though the BBC Singers’ diction is generally
very good – and so I couldn’t really
understand the piece as I would have
wished. It seems quite a dark piece
though there are some chinks of light,
as, perhaps, befits the title.
It wouldn’t be Christmas
without a turkey and unfortunately this
CD contains one such in the shape of
the offering by Jerzy Kornowicz. I’m
afraid I simply could make neither head
nor tail of this. The music is punctuated
(or interrupted) by a female speaker,
who may have been pre-recorded, intoning
isolated words. The text doesn’t seem
to have any obvious connection with
Christmas either. The BBC Singers do
their best but I wondered why.
However, the inclusion
of one dud track should not deter purchasers
and in any case I may be in a minority
of one in disliking the Kornowicz piece.
Anyone buying this CD can do so confident
in the knowledge that they will listen
to a varied, stimulating and highly
original collection of Christmas music
and that every piece is superbly realised
by Stephen Cleobury and his expert choir.
Without exception these pieces must
make considerable demands on the performers
but the degree of assurance and expertise
on display here is tremendous.
In my opinion the music
included here enriches the wonderful
tradition of Western music for Christmas.
I enjoyed it greatly and found it to
be one of the most stimulating choral
discs to have come my way for a long
while. I hope many collectors will be
encouraged to try this collection of
music that refreshes, extends and expands
the Christmas music repertoire while
being respectful of the traditions of