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A Christmas Cantata.
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998) A Christmas Cantata (1947)* [28:34]
Trad Chinese arr. & words by F. R. HADDEN Shiao Bao-Bao*** [3:27]
Trad. Basque arr. Edgar PETTMAN The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came [2:57]
Trad Welsh Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore [1:38]
Trad. Arr. Leslie WOODGATE Silent Night [3:22]
Edward ARTHUR Tua Bethlem Dref **[1:59]
G. HENDRIE As I Outrode This Enderes Night** [1:19]
Trad. Arr. Richard ELFYN JONES Good King Wenceslas** [2:33]
Mair Robins (soprano)/John Macintyre (oboe)/***Michael Bradley (countertenor)/**Michael Griffiths (organ)/Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and*Orchestra/Richard Elfyn Jones
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Penarth, July 1985. DDD
SAYDISC CD-SDL 352 [45:57]

 

Geoffrey Bush was born in London. At the age of eight he was exposed to the English choral tradition in the best possible way when he became a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral. While still a schoolboy he had the good fortune to become an unofficial pupil of John Ireland, with whom he remained very friendly until Ireland’s death in 1962. He went up to Oxford University, though his studies there were interrupted by the war. After graduating in 1946 Bush devoted his professional life primarily to composition and to teaching music. He had a particularly long and close association with London University.

His large portfolio of compositions eventually included no less than six operas and also two symphonies. The First symphony was completed in 1954 and the first performance was given at the Cheltenham Festival that year. The Second followed in 1957. Unfortunately, Bush’s music, which is tonal, tuneful and accessible, fell out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, a fate he shared with many other fine British composers. In fact the few recordings that have been made demonstrate the high quality of Bush’s music. Both of the symphonies are well worth hearing, for example. review

Geoffrey Bush’s output includes two Christmas cantatas. In Praise of Mary (1955) for soprano solo, chorus and orchestra, is a lovely collection of settings of medieval carols. Fittingly, for a piece so firmly rooted in the English choral tradition, it was first heard at the 1955 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford under Meredith Davies with Isobel Baillie, no less, as the soloist.

A Christmas Cantata (1947) is a rather longer work, but the orchestration is restricted to strings and oboe. It was composed for the Musical Society of Balliol College, Oxford by whom it was premièred that year under the direction of its dedicatee, Ronald Gordon (individual movements are dedicated to other Oxford friends, identified only by their initials.) It is the sort of anthology work which British composers, including Vaughan Williams and Britten, tend to do so well. For his cantata Bush chose a number of well-known, mainly English traditional carols and wove them into a delightful tapestry. Several of the carols settings use traditional melodies. The treatment of all the carols, especially the well known ones, is very thoughtful. There are often unexpected and subtle harmonic touches, either in the accompaniment or within the choir. However, the carols are never overwhelmed and their simple direct spirit is retained.

I first encountered this charming work when the choir with which I sing gave a series of performances of it in 2004 and again in 2005. It was noticeable that the music made an immediate and favourable impression on the singers as we learnt it and, in due course, on our audiences.

The piece begins with a relatively extended orchestral prelude. The music is innocent and transparent, very firmly in the best English pastoral tradition. The light scoring ensures that the textures are airy. Eventually the sopranos sing a gentle ‘Lullay’ before the male voices chant an opening prayer.

The first carol is ‘The Seven Joys of Mary.’ The melody that is sung by the choir is apparently a traditional tune but not the one often associated with the carol and I’d not heard it before. The tune is robust, foursquare and quintessentially English. The movement is described as a Theme and Variations but ingeniously the variations are in the accompaniment. The strange remote string harmonies for the fifth variation (‘the sixth good joy’) are particularly notable. In this performance there’s a good solo contribution from Mair Robins but in the two variations (verses) where the men have the melody I sensed they were rather pressing the pace.

After this a lovely chorale-like setting of a poem by Hilaire Belloc, ‘When Jesus Christ Was Four Years Old’, recalls the chorales of Bach - as Vaughan Williams was to do a few years later in his own Christmas cantata, Hodie. This setting is simple in style but harmonically sophisticated. In this performance the conductor doesn’t appear to observe the markings of ‘avanti’ over a couple of passages which, I believe, suggest that the music should move on for a few bars. Instead everything is at the same tempo, which is a pity. The singing is good but I’d have welcomed a bit more dynamic shading.

There follows a setting of the Czech carol, ‘Rocking’, which is typical of Bush’s treatment of his core material in remaining faithful to the original carols while presenting them in a new light without suffocating their direct, straightforward nature. Here, once again, Mair Robins sings her solo well.

Having given us quite a stretch of gentle music Bush now increases the temperature significantly with ‘Make we merry both more and less.’ This is a virtuoso scherzo, which employs frequent harmonic shifts and is possessed of tremendous rhythmic vitality. Unfortunately, though the choir gives the music the required rhythmic zest they, or their conductor, are much less observant of the accents and many dynamic contrasts that Bush writes into the score. As a consequence the movement sounds rather unvaried and a good deal of excitement is lost.

The next movement is a short and tender lento tranquillo setting of the fifteenth century English carol, ‘This Endris night’. Unfortunately and unaccountably this movement is omitted here. I can only think that it was left out in order to accommodate the recording on a single LP side when it was originally released. However, it’s a great shame that this cut has been made because we lose the chance to hear a lovely setting. The next carol is also English and from the fifteenth century and here again there’s a departure from the composer’s intentions. ‘I sing of a Maiden’ is marked to be sung by the soprano soloist but here all the sopranos sing it together. They sing it nicely but for me the sense of fragile femininity that one gets with a single voice is lost. We remain in fifteenth century England for ‘The Coventry Carol.’ The music of the opening and closing stanzas is subdued and very sad but in the central section, where Herod confronts us, there is a fitting degree of bite and ferocity. However, once again it seemed to me that insufficient regard is paid to dynamic contrast: and the crescendo leading up to the climax is largely ignored.

In the finale the joy of Christmas reasserts itself with an extrovert setting of ‘I saw three ships’, complete with pealing choral bells. Here the singing is lively and joyful and benefits from much better attention to the dynamic markings. However, Geoffrey Bush has a surprise in store. Instead of ending his cantata with the fairly obvious joyfulness of this carol he brings the work back full circle, reprising briefly the various strands of vocal and orchestral material that we first heard in the Prelude. The work ends quietly. It is the Peace of Christmas that has the last word.

To complete the disc there’s a miscellaneous selection of carols. The first one, Shiao Bao-Bao employs a traditional Chinese melody and is really rather nice. There are also two Welsh carols, Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore and the more extrovert Tua Bethlem Dref. The setting of As I Outrode This Enderes Night is lively and jolly. It sounds to be a fairly recent piece but the documentation is completely silent on this point. The conductor’s own arrangement of Good King Wenceslas rounds of the programme. I found this a bit too boisterous and frenetic but, then, it’s never been a carol that does a great deal for me and others may respond to the high spirits of this arrangement.

The recording was made some years ago but still sounds well. Perhaps it would have been better if the choir had been placed a little further away from the microphones but the sound is still fully acceptable. The documentation is inadequate, I’m afraid. There are no texts, the note about the Bush piece, which will be unfamiliar to many listeners, is perfunctory and the only two carols to get a mention are the Welsh ones. I’d have liked just a little information about the Chinese item, for example.

This is the first and, so far, only recording of Bush’s A Christmas Cantata and that makes this CD an attractive proposition. It’s a captivating work and despite the reservations I’ve expressed there is much to commend the performance. I hope, however, that one day another company, perhaps Naxos, will give us a rival recording and that this time Geoffrey Bush’s engaging score will be given complete. Until then, despite its short playing time, this disc usefully fills a gap in the English repertoire.

John Quinn

 



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