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A Christmas Caroll from Westminster Abbey
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
* Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. Westminster Abbey 7, 8, 14, 15 January 2008. DDD
Original language texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67716
[63:34]
Experience Classicsonline




Old German carol arr. Robert Lucas PEARSALL In dulci jubilo [3:37]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël [11:07]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) A Christmas Caroll* [6:26]
William WALTON (1902-1983) All this time [1:56]
James LAVINO (b. 1973) Nativity [3:39]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) Dormi Jesu* [4:56]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) The Shepherd’s Carol [3:09]
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959) The Three Kings [5:26]
Trad. arr Stephen CLEOBURY Joys Seven* [3:16]
Franz GRÜBER (1787-1863) arr. Christopher BOWERS-BROADBENT Silent Night [3:00]
Trad arr. James O’DONNELL I saw three ships [1:39]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976) The little road to Bethlehem [3:05]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Ave Rex* [12:12]

The very fruitful partnership between Hyperion and the Westminster Abbey choir continues with this recital of Christmas music. I suppose I was favourably disposed towards it before even starting to listen since the programme that James O’Donnell has chosen is just my sort of Christmas collection. That’s not to say that I don’t like the familiar seasonal favourites but some carols seem almost omnipresent on disc and it’s great to encounter a refreshing and enterprising programme such as this.

A sub-theme in the programme is the inclusion of recent commissions for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. The earliest of these is Rutter’s Dormi Jesu, written for the 1999 Festival. This is a particularly treasurable example of Rutter’s craft. In his perceptive notes Robert Quinney draws attention to "the memorable melody, perfect choral writing, and sensitivity to the text" but adds "the harmony is more than usually rich, straying some way into the blues-zone". It receives a performance of great beauty here. From the following year’s Festival, I believe, comes Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherd’s Carol. This, too, is a lovely piece, aptly described by Quinney as "an exquisite choral texture." Completing the King’s triptych is Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings, first heard at the 2000 Festival. This is a little less easy to grasp at first hearing, perhaps, but I’ve heard it a good few times over the years and it impresses me more with each hearing. It’s a mysterious piece in many ways, full of atmosphere. James O’Donnell and his choir do it proud. Continuing the King’s connection we’re also given the winning arrangement of Joys Seven by the long-serving Music Director at the college, Stephen Cleobury, whose enlightened policy towards the annual Festival was responsible for commissioning the three items I’ve just mentioned as well as many others by a wide variety of composers.

I was familiar with nearly all the music on this disc but there are two significant exceptions. One is A Christmas Caroll by Kenneth Leighton, the piece that gives the disc its title. This is a setting of the poem by Robert Herrick, which many other composers have set, including John Rutter and Richard Rodney Bennett. Both of those composers set the text in a quiet, reflective way but Leighton responds to it with much more extrovert music and his piece incorporates an elaborate organ part. I can’t recall hearing this work before but I think it’s very fine. Julian Empett’s baritone solos give particular pleasure in a very fine overall performance.

I’m certain I’ve not encountered previously Nativity by the young American composer, James Lavino. It’s a very recent composition, dating from 2007, though that information isn’t included in the booklet. Lavino has chosen to set some lines by John Donne. He’s produced a very beautiful and thoughtful piece. The choral writing is very skilful and Lavino generates a compelling atmosphere. I would guess that the piece requires great control to sing well – and it’s certainly sung very well indeed on this occasion.

The programme includes two sets of Christmas pieces. Poulenc’s magnificent Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël rank among his finest vocal works and are surely classics of the genre. The Westminster singers do them very well – I admired the control of line in the gorgeous ‘O magnum mysterium’ for example and their supple phrasing in ‘Quem vidistis pastores’. If I have a criticism I don’t think they let go quite enough in ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. This is an exultant piece and this performance sounds just a trifle careful, even inhibited.

At the other end of the programme comes Ave Rex, the carol sequence by the Welsh composer, William Mathias. Composed in 1969, it has become one of his best-known works. The Westminster choir is right on top of it and Robert Quinney dispatches the crucial organ part with élan. The exuberant movements, ‘Alleluya, a new work is come on hand’ and ‘Sir Christèmas’ are done with verve while the more contemplative ‘There is no rose of such virtue’ is performed most sensitively.

This is a first rate Christmas compilation. I admire both the enterprise of the programme selection and the skill with which the programme is executed. The engineers have done a very fine job, using the resonance of Westminster Abbey very intelligently to produce sound that is both clear and atmospheric. This is a disc that I know will give me a great deal of pleasure in the coming Christmas season and I hope it will do the same for you.

John Quinn


 


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