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I Saw Three Ships
Christmas Music from Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Nethsingha
Robert Houssart (organ)
rec. Gloucester Cathedral 19, 20, 24 January, 2 February 2007. DDD
Texts and translations included
AVIE AV2122 [76:03]

Jean MOUTON (c.1459-1522) Nesciens Mater [5:51]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Ave Maria [3:05]
Paul MANZ (b. 1919) Eíen so, Lord Jesus, quickly come [2:39]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:15]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994) There is no rose [1:51]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Virga Jesse [3:48]
John GARDNER (b. 1917) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [2:24]
Herbert HOWELLS Tryste Noel [5:08]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) The Lamb [3:27]
Philip LEDGER (b. 1937) arr. On Christmas Night [1:57]
David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919) arr. Away in a manger [2:41]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) I saw three ships [2:34]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) A babe is born [3:21]
Mark BLATCHLY (b. 1960) arr. Silent Night [3:12]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968) arr. Sleep, Little Jesus, Sleep [2:54]
Stephen JACKSON (b. 1951) arr. Noël Nouvelet [4:05]
John JOUBERT (b. 1927) Torches [1:36]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down [3:51]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926) arr. Ding dong merrily on high [2:01]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Blessed Son of God [2:45]
Arthur WARRELL (1900-1970) arr. We wish you a merry Christmas [1:55]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak midwinter [4:41]
David WILLCOCKS arr. O come, all ye faithful [3:49]
David WILLCOCKS arr. Deck the hall [1:30]

To put it mildly, there is no shortage of Christmas CDs on the market. So, to be competitive, a newcomer to this crowded field must be differentiated either in terms of quality of performance or interest of content Ė or preferably both. Even excellence of performance is not always enough. Only last year one of the Christmas CDs I reviewed was expertly performed but the safe, predictable choice of music bored me to death. Iím glad to report that this latest CD from Gloucester Cathedral scores highly on both the excellence and interest indices.

As the track-listing shows there are several old favourites here. We find some of Sir David Willcocksí well-loved arrangements and listening again to his verse three descant for O come, all ye faithful is a timely reminder that sometimes the old ones are still the best. I must admit to a little surprise that, after this, Deck the hall has been chosen as the closing item. Well though itís performed it seems to me a rather limp choice with which to round off proceedings. Itís good, too, to hear Philip Ledgerís arrangement of The Sussex Carol Ė dare I say it, I prefer this arrangement, with its effective organ part to Vaughan Williamsí classic. RVW is represented by the timeless The Blessed Son of God, always welcome, and Iím glad to see that Warlockís beautiful Bethlehem Down has made the list.

As the recital stems from Gloucester itís highly appropriate that Herbert Howells should be represented. After all, he was an articled pupil of one of Andrew Nethsinghaís predecessors in the Gloucester organ loft, Herbert Brewer. His A Spotless Rose is a perennial Christmas favourite, albeit one that is perhaps a little over-exposed, despite its many felicities. Itís well done here, with a very good baritone solo from Greg Skidmore. But whatís this? More Howells, and a much less familiar offering at that. Tryste Nowell was commissioned in 1978 for the third volume in the series Carols for Choirs. Manyís the time Iíve looked at the music in my well-thumbed copy of that book and thought "Gosh! That looks difficult." But I canít remember ever hearing it before. Well now I have, thanks to Andrew Nethsingha, and it is indeed difficult. Itís in Howellsís most richly chromatic vein and this unaccompanied piece is a challenging one, both for performers and listeners. Anyone expecting a piece in the same mellifluous style as the much earlier A Spotless Rose will be disappointed but this powerful Christmas anthem is very well worth hearing and Iím delighted by its inclusion here and by the assured performance it receives.

Much of the music is twentieth-century but, among many delights, special mention must be made of the earliest composition on the disc. Jean Moutonís Nesciens Mater was new to me and I count this arresting piece as a great discovery. Itís a setting for two unaccompanied four-part choirs of men. The music unfolds slowly and with a real sense of wonder as the two choirs sing in canon. The Gloucester lay clerks sing it splendidly and it forms a superbly atmospheric opener to the programme.

Two anniversaries that fall in 2007 are celebrated fittingly with the inclusion of carols by John Joubert, eighty this year, and by John Gardner, ten years his senior. The speed adopted for Gardnerís Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is, perhaps, just a notch too steady. However, given the resonant acoustic in which the recording was made, thatís probably a sensible decision for it ensures the clarity and rhythmic precision that are essential to a successful performance of this piece. Another item marks an anniversary, in this case the seventieth birthday of Richard Rodney Bennett, which fell in 2006. To mark the occasion Gloucester Cathedral commissioned a new carol from him. His I saw three ships was unveiled at the Christmas services last December and it now receives its first recording. Bennett sets an almost identical text to that used by Peter Warlock in his The Sycamore Tree but Bennettís is much less jaunty. Some of its harmonies sound jazz-inflected to me, especially near the end. I find that it needs to be listened to a few times to appreciate it properly but itís an interesting setting and fully justifies its inclusion.

Iím a little less enthusiastic about another anniversary piece. Elizabeth Maconchyís There is no rose is lively but I donít find the melodic material all that memorable. But thatís probably my fault and in her centenary year itís good to find her music featuring on this programme.

All the pieces on the programme are well executed by the Gloucester choir. The men sing well and with good tone. The trebles often sing with quite an appreciable edge to their tone, which I find attractive. Once or twice it sounds as if high-lying lines tax their pitching, Brucknerís demanding Virga Jesse offering a case in point. However, such examples are isolated and certainly didnít spoil my enjoyment. If I have a criticism itís that the choir sometimes doesnít sing quietly enough. I would have expected quieter, more intimate singing in Away in a manger and Mark Blatchlyís lush arrangement of Silent Night would also have benefited from a little less volume, I think. The first verse of that carol features a good treble soloist, Ciaran Walshe, and indeed all the solo opportunities in the recital are very well taken. The choir has been recorded clearly but the engineers have also captured a good sense of the acoustics of the cathedral.

Gloucester Cathedralís Assistant Director of Music, Robert Houssart, contributes some effective organ accompaniments, not least in the appropriately French-sounding organ part that Stephen Jackson wrote for his setting of Noël Nouvelet. Houssart is equally good as an annotator; his notes are succinct but interesting. I have just one very minor quibble about the otherwise excellent documentation: it would have been nice if the sources of the words for each carol had been provided.

So this very enjoyable CD easily passes my excellence and interest tests and represents an excellent seasonal purchase.

John Quinn

This very enjoyable CD represents an excellent seasonal purchase. ... see Full Review


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