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One Star, at Last. A Selection of Carols of Our Time
Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948) Nowell Sing We Now* [3’56"]
Steve MARTLAND (b. 1959) Three Carols*: From lands that see the sun arise [2’40"]; Make we joy [2’36"]; There is no Rose of such virtue [4’38"]
Carl RÜTTI (b. 1949) I wonder as I wander*° [2’15"]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Illuminare, Jerusalem° [2’28"]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) The Shepherd’s Gift*° [3’44"]
Francis GRIER (b. 1956) Corpus Christi Carol° [3’44"]
Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971) The Fayrfax Carol [4’31"]
Conrad SUSA (b. 1935) The Shepherds Sing° [3’15"]
Jean BELMONT (b. 1939) Nativitas [2’33"]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959) Seinte Mari Moder Milde° [7’17"]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) Today the Virgin [3’01"]
Jerzy KORNOWICZ (b. 1959) Oczekiwanie (Waiting)* [9’09"]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) Carol* [3’42"]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934) One star, at last [3’33"]
John HARBISON (b. 1938) O Magnum Mysterium* [2’17"]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968) Sleep, little Jesus, sleep° [3’19"]
Howard GOODALL (b. 1958) Romance of the Angels*° [4’32"]
John HARLE (b. 1956) Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas Plum Pudding (average cost: 3 shillings and 6d)* [4’08"]
BBC Singers/Stephen Cleobury.
°Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. Temple Church, London 29-30 June, 6 July 2000 and at Maida Vale Studio 3, London, 3 July 2000
*denotes premier recording
SIGNUM SIGCD067 [77’48"]


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 combination.

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 the genre.

Enthusiastically recommended.

John Quinn

 

 



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