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Make We Joy - Music for Christmas by Holst and Walton
Gustav HOLST (1874 - 1934)
In the Bleak Mid-Winter (GH) [4:20]
Masters in this Hall (GH) [4:27]
Lullay, my Liking (GH) [4:05]
Personent Hodie (GH) [2:57]
This have I done for my True Love (GH) [5:40]
Bring us in Good Ale (GH) [1:15]
Wassail Song (GH) [3:18]
The Evening-watch (GH) [4:06]
Nunc dimittis (GH) [3:23]
William WALTON (1902 - 1983)
All This Time (WW) [1:53]
King Herod and the Cock (WW) [2:04]
Make We Joy now in this Fest (WW) [3:44]
What Cheer? (WW) [1:26]
Antiphon (WW) [3:25]
Jubilate Deo (WW) [3:35]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Simon Lawford (organ)
rec. Merton College Chapel Oxford, 11- 12 May 1987
NIMBUS NI7021 [49:41] 

Experience Classicsonline

This CD from Nimbus has rarely been out of the catalogue since its first release in the late 1980s - and with good reason. It’s a cracking disc with sympathetic performances, well recorded and featuring some superb music. If you are looking for a choral disc of Christmas music without resorting to the usual “lessons & carols” format you will be hard pressed to do better than this.

The concept here is as simple as it is neat. The producers have compiled a programme of music by two of the greatest 20th century English composers - Walton sang with this choir whilst an undergraduate - that are linked to the festive season. The fascination for the listener who is seeking more than just a sequence of familiar carols is the juxtaposition of the familiar and relatively unknown together with the differing styles the composers employ. David Trendell’s liner-note from 1987 has been retained, and rightly so: it is a model of succinct insight into both the music and the musicians. My only quibble about the programming comes with the opening track - In the Bleak Mid-Winter. This is one of my all-time favourite carols and Holst’s setting of the Christina Rossetti text is heart-meltingly beautiful. But as an opener to an album entitled Make We Joy it is, how shall I put it … a little bleak! Also, the choir has clearly chosen for this a deliberately pared back, bleached almost grey tone that is rather haunting but until you hear the rest of the disc the fear is that the prevailing tone will be bland. Occasionally the Christ Church Cathedral Choir fall into the rather politely Anglican mannerism of over-pointing consonants and rrrolling their Rs. Frankly when this is done at the expense of a musical phrase or wording-painting I find it distracting. Take for example the opening of the Walton Jubilate Deo (tr. 15). This is very much in the style of Walton’s celebratory/ceremonial music - the Coronation Te Deum for example. Darlington makes the choir fussily point the rhythm of the opening and the effect of being “joyful in the Lord” is diminished. For comparison seek out, if you can, the recording by the mixed voices of Trinity College conducted by Richard Marlowe (Conifer - nla) where it forms part of their complete survey of Walton’s sacred choral music. This is far more dynamic and I would bet more what Walton had in mind.

The programme is split 9:6 in favour of Holst and this is a fair reflection of the two composers’ involvement with choral music. All of the music is beautiful but some of the Holst works are great. Holst’s involvement with the Whitsuntide Singers of Thaxted is well known and amongst the works he wrote for them is This I have done for my True Love (tr. 8). I did not realise until reading Trendell’s note that Holst considered this his best part-song. For sure it is a miniature masterpiece. The longest piece here, it runs to nearly six minutes and is a miracle of apt word setting and beautiful writing. The Whitsuntide Singers were a mixed (secular) choir and here we have 29 men and boys of the English Cathedral tradition. Overall I probably do miss the presence of women’s voices but the performances here are a delight. Perhaps it is the purity and naivety of the boy’s voices that is so disarming. An excellent example of Holst’s preference for austerely beautiful textures is Lullay my Liking which echoes his song settings for voice and violin. Here the use of a cathedral choir pays dividends with the purity of their sound. Another highlight is Holst’s Nunc dimittis of 1915. Neither this nor the marvellous The Evening-watch can be termed seasonally apt pieces but they would grace any programme and are performed with assurance and sensitivity.

Walton’s settings lie closer to the concept of the traditional verse/refrain carol and are simpler in their intent and design. A direct comparison between Marlowe on Conifer and Darlington here shows the former to be more deliberately expressive - more profane than sacred. Both approaches are valid and ultimately the choice will lie with the listener. If I had to choose I prefer the greater drama of Marlowe but would be loath to be without Darlington. Highlights amongst the Walton pieces are the Antiphon (let all world in ev’ry corner sing). This is one of the relatively few pieces featuring an organ accompaniment safely if not flamboyantly performed by Simon Lawford. The choir is recorded comfortably in front of the organ hence that instrument lacks a little presence in the more rhetorical passages.

Overall a disc that deserves to be heard far more often than a couple of weeks either side of Christmas. The only passing quibble is its brevity running a few seconds shy of fifty minutes. Yet it serves as yet another reminder of the quality of English cathedral choirs and the body of work written for them to perform.

Nick Barnard 

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