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Once were Christmas Angels. The Pure Sound of Boy Trebles
Trad. English The Holly and the Ivy [2:27]
Christopher Harvey, James Lyle, Peter White/Canterbury Cathedral/Alan Wicks
Czech. Arr. David WILLCOCKS Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep [2:34]
Michael Criswell/New College Oxford/David Lumsden
H J GAUNTLETT Once in Royal David’s City [3:46]
Michael HEAD The Little Road to Bethlehem [3:15]
Paul Dutton/Leeds Parish Church/Donald Hunt
Arr. M. WILLIAMSON Ding Dong Merrily [1:39]
Arr. John RUTTER Quem Pastores Laudavere [2:49]
Andrew Wicks/Chichester Cathedral Choir/John Birch
Trad. O Little Town of Bethlehem [4:49]
Paul Dutton/Leeds Parish Church/Donald Hunt
Arr. Henry WALFORD DAVIES Christmas is Coming [1:19]
Andrew Wicks/Chichester Cathedral Choir/John Birch
W. J. KIRKPATRICK Away in a Manger [3:34]
Michael Criswell/New College Oxford/David Lumsden
Trad French, arr. Donald CASHMORE Born Today is a Holy Child [2:47]
Kenneth LEIGHTON Lullay Lulla [3:18]
Peter HURFORD Sunny Bank (I Saw Three Ships) [1:34]
Andrew Wicks/Chichester Cathedral Choir/John Birch
Edward BAIRSTOW The Blessed Virgin’s Cradle Song [3:02]
Robin Walker/York Minster/Francis Jackson
Howard BLAKE Walking in the Air [4:05]
John RUTTER The Candlelight Carol [3:54]
Daniel Ludford-Thomas-St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton/Andrew Shenton
Arr. David WILLCOCKS Tomorrow Shall Be my Dancing Day [2:09]
David Elias/Llandaff Cathedral/Michael Smith
John GOSS See Amid the Winter Snow [3:40]
Owen Pugh/ New College Oxford/David Lumsden
Trad. Dutch, arr. WOOD King Jesus Hath a Garden [3:51]
David Rees-Williams/New College Oxford/David Lumsden
Georg Frederic HANDEL Rejoice the Lord is King [1:27]
Jeremy Bowyer/Southwark Cathedral/Harry Bramma
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Sweet Baby Sleep [1:47]
Ian Cooper/ Canterbury Cathedral/Alan Wicks
Spiritual arr. Malcolm SARGENT All God’s Chillun’/I Got a Robe [2:51]
Andrew Wicks/Chichester Cathedral Choir/John Birch
Arr. John Jacob NILES I Wonder as I Wander [3:38]
Paul Dutton/Leeds Parish Church/Donald Hunt
Benjamin BRITTEN New Year Carol [2:12]
Peter Davey/ Chichester Cathedral Choir/Alan Thurlow
Richard TERRY Myn Liking [2:26]
Michael Mace/ Leeds Parish Church/Donald Hunt
Arr. Malcolm SARGENT Silent Night [3:31]
Andrew Wicks/Chichester Cathedral Choir/John Birch
rec. dates and venues not stated. From original LPs on the Abbey and Alpha Labels ADD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4057 [72:48]

 

This is a seasonal follow-up to the CD entitled Once were Angels – a disc celebrating the boy treble voice, which Griffin released a little while ago. review Once again the source is the many albums originally released on the Alpha and Abbey labels. The moving spirit behind these recordings, and countless others of British church choirs, was Harry Mudd, MBE, the founder of Alpha Records.

Several very gifted young musicians are featured here and few allowances, if any, need to be made for their ages. For the most part the recorded sound is pretty satisfactory, especially when one remembers that Mudd and his colleagues were not exactly using state-of-the-art recording equipment. Only a few of the Chichester Cathedral tracks disappoint in terms of sound. Some, but not all, of the recordings of that choir sound to have been made in a very confined, boxy acoustic, perhaps a rehearsal hall?

The two soloists of whom we hear most are Paul Dutton of Leeds Parish Church and Andrew Wicks of Chichester Cathedral. Paul Dutton is unfairly taxed, I think, by the ponderously slow speed set by Donald Hunt for Once in Royal David’s City. Since Dutton is scrupulous over diction – and rightly so – the result sounds mannered at this speed. However, matters improve in Michael Head’s charming song, The Little Road to Bethlehem, where Dutton’s singing is quite disarming. He conveys a genuine – and appropriate - sense of wonder in his solos in I Wonder as I Wander but I was less happy with O Little Town of Bethlehem where he seems to have trouble with his breathing and, as a result, chops up the phrases rather noticeably.

I was mightily impressed by Andrew Wicks’ haunting solo work in Leighton’s Lullay Lulla. Indeed, I can’t recall hearing a better account of this; his colleagues in the Chichester choir are pretty good as well. It’s good to hear Peter Hurford’s exuberant Sunny Bank again and here as well Wicks makes a splendid contribution. I was rather puzzled, however, by the inclusion of certain other Chichester tracks. I can’t for the life of me see what All God’s Chillun’/I Got a Robe has to do with Christmas. There are, moreover, one or two of their items, such as Ding Dong Merrily, where I couldn’t readily pick out a treble solo.

Michael Criswell catches the ear with his nice round voice and good control. Arguably Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep is taken a bit too slowly, but that’s not his fault. He also sings the perennial favourite Away in a Manger very nicely indeed though I could have done without the organ introduction, which is rather at odds with the essential simplicity of this carol.

Robin Walker only features on one track, Bairstow’s delightful The Blessed Virgin’s Cradle Song. I love the way that at times his solo voice emerges so naturally and effortlessly from the texture of his treble colleagues. Daniel Ludford-Thomas of Northampton does well in the Howard Blake item, though I feel the organ accompaniment, at least as recorded, is a bit on the hefty side. He also features as soloist in the first two verses of Rutter’s Candlelight Carol. These verses aren’t actually meant to be sung as solos but I feel sure that the composer wouldn’t object in the face of such quality singing.

I admired the breath control and tone of David Elias in Tomorrow Shall Be my Dancing Day Incidentally, pace the track listing I think the arrangement used is solely by Sir David Willcocks. Elias has a strong clear tone, which he uses to excellent advantage. In King Jesus Hath a Garden we have to wait until the penultimate verse to hear David Rees-Williams sing his solo but it’s worth the wait for his is one of the most natural and pleasing deliveries on the whole disc.

Another item that doesn’t seem to me to qualify as a Christmas item is Rejoice the Lord is King. I associate this with Easter and Ascensiontide. However, its inclusion is welcome since it allows us to hear the boy who, for me, possesses the most individual and characterful voice in this anthology. Jeremy Bowyer is excellent. In reviewing the companion disc my colleague, Jonathan Woolf, referred to Bowyer’s "slightly darker" voice and drew attention to his clarity and confidence. I hadn’t read Jonathan’s comments before listening to the present disc but I concur wholeheartedly with his view. Bowyer’s voice has just the right amount of edge but in achieving that he doesn’t lose any roundness of tone.

I’m afraid Peter Davey’s tone is too fruity for my taste in Britten’s New Year Carol By contrast. the disarmingly innocent enthusiasm of Michael Mace in Myn Liking is a delight.

Griffin’s documentation includes "where are they now" notes about most of the soloists. It’s noticeable how many of them have remained active in music, often professionally, and those that haven’t seem to have prospered in other fields. This confirms a view I’ve long held that membership of the choir of a cathedral or comparable ecclesiastical foundation is one of the greatest privileges a young boy can have for it offers not just the prospect of an incomparable musical grounding but also an opportunity at a very early age to experience such invaluable things as teamwork and - dare one say it without sounding pompous and old-fashioned? – discipline and self-discipline. The boys heard here are, of course, among the vocal crème de la crème but is it any wonder that they all sing with such commitment and confidence? I only wish such an opportunity had been available to me at their age and I do hope that the tradition which these young musicians represent can not just be kept alive but that it will prosper.

This is probably not a disc to play through at one sitting. However, it will give a great deal of pleasure, I’m sure, and not just to aficionados of the treble voice.

John Quinn

 



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