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Advent in Winchester: O Come, Emmanuel
Plainsong Advent Prose. Plainsong Ė Mode 1 [4:04]
William BYRD (1543-1623) Vigilate [4:13]
Paul MANZ (b. 1919) Eíen so, Lord Jesus, quickly come [2:53]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Chorale Prelude: Wachet auf, BWV645* [4:02]
Thomas WEELKES (?1576-1623) Hosanna to the Son of David [2:14]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959) Laudi alla Vergine Maria (2004)^ [7:14]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:25]
David WILLCOCKS (arr.) O come, O come, Emmanuel [3:54]
Johann Sebastian BACH Chorale Prelude: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV599 [4:23]
Franz BIEBL (1906-2001) Ave Maria [5:14]
Patrick GOWERS (b. 1936) Ad te levavi [7:50]
Edward NAYLOR (1867-1934) Vox dicentes: Clama [8:49]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Chorale Prelude: Es is einí Rosí entsprungen [2:38]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Benedictus in C [5:48]
Winchester Cathedral Choir/Sarah Baldock &*Andrew Lumsden (organ)/dir. Andrew Lumsden. *First recording.
rec. Winchester Cathedral, 16-19 January 2006 DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4052 [66:48]

No sooner had I reviewed David Hillís new CD of Advent and Christmas music with the choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge review than this new disc arrived which features Hillís old choir under his successor at Winchester, Andrew Lumsden.

Lumsden has been in charge at Winchester since 2002, ample time to put his own stamp on the choir, and itís clear from this CD that the choir is in very good heart. The chosen programme is logical and satisfying, beginning with the Advent Prose. At the Advent Carol Service in Winchester Cathedral, we are told, this is sung in procession from the Retroquire to the body of the cathedral. Thatís the effect that is achieved here and very atmospheric it sounds. The men of the choir sing the plainchant excellently, with a nice round tone and beautifully clear diction.

The choir excels in the polyphonic offerings. Byrdís Vigilate is presented vigorously and with appropriate urgency. I admired the clarity in the fast-moving lines of polyphony. The Weelkes anthem is also pleasingly robust.

Most of the choral offerings, however are of much more recent vintage. The Biebl and Manz pieces Iíve heard before but those by Gowers and MacMillan are new; indeed, the MacMillan here receives its first recording. Paul Manzís setting of words from the Book of Revelation was published in 1954. I think itís an inspired little piece. Musically itís quite straightforward but it burns with a gentle conviction and perhaps thatís not surprising when you read in the notes the circumstances behind its composition. The Winchester choir do it proud. Franz Biebl wrote his rapt Ave Maria in 1964 for a German fire brigade male voice choir. The music features lovely chromatic harmonies interspersed with a couple of brief passages in plainsong. A mood of intense devotion permeates the piece and the use of male altos on the top line imparts a particularly haunting quality to the proceedings. Itís performed splendidly here and this is, on balance, the most sheerly beautiful piece in the whole programme. I say that even though Howellsí gorgeous but ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is included Ė do people think this is the only piece of Christmas music that he wrote? Incidentally, since we read in the notes that the words of Howellsí carol are an English versification of the old German chorale Es is einí Rosí entsprungen it might have been a nice idea to place the Brahms organ work next to the Howells carol.

Iím glad to find two impressive contemporary pieces in the programme. James MacMillanís Laudi alla Vergine Maria was commissioned jointly by Winchester Cathedralís Chapter and by the Netherlands Chamber Choir. It dates from 2004 and itís a setting in Italian for unaccompanied choir of lines from Danteís Inferno. Itís a typically arresting piece by this eloquent composer. The choir is divided into as many as eight parts and there are also a similar number of solo parts, taken by choir members. The soloists have difficult, florid lines to sing and, in fact, the whole composition sounds to present formidable challenges to the performers. So far as I can judge these are triumphantly surmounted by Lumsden and his singers. Some other composers might have opted to set the same lines in a more gentle fashion but MacMillan, a committed Catholic, is forthright in his praise of Mary. The whole piece makes a thrilling effect, especially since it inspires superbly committed singing here. MacMillan builds the music to an ecstatically joyful final climax on the word ĎAveí but then, in a masterstroke, the music dies away on quieter repetitions of the same single word.

Patrick Gowersí Ad te levavi dates from 1999 and is one of a set of four Advent pieces. It sets the collect for Advent Sunday and, despite its Latin title, itís in English. It begins with a very hushed, mysterious organ introduction. Listeners should be warned that when I heard it through loudspeakers, using the same comfortable volume setting that Iíd employed for the rest of the disc, I found this introduction all but inaudible up to the point where the voices enter (at 1:05). It was only when I listened through headphones that the organ could be heard. The choral part of the piece, which employs two four-part choirs, starts with slow moving, antiphonal chanting of the opening lines in a quiet, prayerful style. Gradually Gowers makes his part writing more complex and this, added to an incremental increase in volume, ratchets up the tension in the music. The work is cast in an arch-like form and after a climax has been achieved the music subsides back to the subdued level of the beginning. I found it a most effective piece.

The final choral offering is Stanfordís noble Benedictus in C (1909). This is a sturdy and finely wrought piece, typical of the composerís liturgical music and its inclusion is greatly to be welcomed. The setting culminates in a magnificent soaring doxology at the very end of which Sarah Baldock makes the organ pedal part superbly sonorous. This makes a splendid conclusion to the programme.

Mention must also be made of the three organ pieces, which are interspersed at strategic intervals. Andrew Lumsden himself contributes Bachís famous Chorale Prelude: Wachet auf in which he uses the reeds on the Winchester organ to very good effect. His assistant, Sarah Baldock, offers us two more subdued pieces, one by Bach and one by Brahms. She plays both very nicely.

This is a most enjoyable disc. Some of the music is fairly familiar but thereís a good and welcome leavening of less familiar and, indeed, recent music. The programme as a whole is very well balanced and the execution is excellent. The recorded sound and documentation are both very good. This is a very enjoyable and satisfying seasonal disc.

John Quinn

 



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