Sleep, Holy Babe - A Collection of Christmas Lullabies
Alexander CAMPKIN (b. 1984) Sleep, Holy Babe (2005)* [4:10]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) A Lullaby* [3:06]
Pierre de MANCHICOURT (c 1510-1564) O Emmanuel* [3:49]
Anthony MUDGE (b. 1974) O magnum mysterium* [3:30]
Trevor LING (b. 1933) Magnificat* [3:38]
Hilary CAMPBELL (b. 1983) Sleep, my dreaming one* [5:01]
Basque trad. arr. Jonathan RATHBONE (b. 1957) Sing Lullaby* [4:51]
Richard PYGOTT (1484-1549) Quid petis, O Fili? [9:39]
David BEVAN (b. 1951) Magnificat [4:58]
John DUGGAN (b. 1963) O Babe, born bare [2:54]
Daniel BURGES (b. 1975) Coventry Carol* [4:02]
Francis POTT (b. 1957) Lullay, my liking (2004) [7:29]
Blossom Street/Hilary Campbell
rec. St. Sepulchre-Without-Newgate, London. 25-27 March 2011 DDD
Original texts and English translations included
Denotes first recording
NAXOS 8.572868 [57:07]

The pieces on this CD are taken from a collection of seventeen items of music for Advent and Christmas, published under the same title by Shorter House in 2010. Several of the pieces recorded here were written specially for that new collection. The items by de Manchicourt and Pygott have been edited for publication by Tom Shorter. The disc features Blossom Street, an ensemble of nineteen young singers (6/4/4/5), which I’ve not encountered previously. The group was formed in 2003 by Hilary Campbell, herself a singer as well as a conductor and composer.

There’s some very interesting material on the disc. The opening piece by Alexander Campkin is a lovely setting of words by Edward Caswall (1814-1878). I think it will have wide appeal both to singers and listeners. My only criticism would be that the musical material is too similar in all of its four stanzas. Anthony Mudge contributes an effective setting of O magnum mysterium, which features some interesting harmonies and progressions. Mudge evokes a sense of awe, which any successful setting of these words has to achieve.

I was very taken with Daniel Burges’ response to the Coventry Carol. In an enterprising composition Burges uses the familiar melody but, as it says in the notes, he “weaves [it] through all the voices”. I thought this approach was very clever. The listener can recognise the melody but it’s not quite as usual. It’s as if the composer keeps tantalisingly drawing a veil momentarily over the tune and then revealing it again. Burges displays a good understanding of voices in his writing.

Also impressive is the piece by Francis Pott. This is one of the items not specially written for the occasion: he composed it for St John’s College, Cambridge in 2004. It’s a very expressive setting, making notable use of solo voices at times. As I’ve found before with vocal works by this very interesting composer, his use of choral textures is most imaginative.

The collection includes two faux-bourdon settings of the Magnificat and by a strange coincidence both composers, Trevor Ling and David Bevan, have past connections with Westminster Cathedral; the former as a bass in the choir and the latter as Assistant Master of the Music. Bevan’s setting is the more elaborate in its harmonised verses, where the writing is in eight parts. Ling’s harmonised verses are in four parts and in a simpler style. Both are effective settings of the Canticle.

Also effective is Jonathan Rathbone’s arrangement of Sing Lullaby. This is such a familiar Christmas piece, of course, and it’s good to hear it in a different guise, though Rathbone has successfully kept faith with the familiar while being his own man. The arrangement is mainly smooth in style – Rathbone was once the director of the Swingle Singers – and perhaps it’s a bit too smooth at “Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing.” Overall, however, I liked this new take on an old favourite.

Not all the music is new or even recent. As an ardent admirer of Finzi’s work I was intrigued and excited by the prospect of hearing a first recording. In his magisterial biography of the composer (Gerald Finzi. An English Composer (1997)) Stephen Banfield points out that this is Finzi’s sole folksong setting. It’s dates from 1942 and uses a translation of a Greek poem by M D Calvocoressi. Banfield describes the piece as “not very successful”, largely because the English translation of the words is “awkward”. It was unpublished at the time that the Banfield book was written so I presume that it now appears in print for the first time in the Shorter House collection. It was interesting to hear but it’s a slight work and not terribly characteristic.

The two Renaissance works offer good contrast with the contemporary music. The piece by the Franco-Flemish composer, de Manchicourt, is in four parts. The polyphony sounds a bit dense in this performance; I’d have welcomed a bit more clarity in the delivery of the various strands of the music. The choir is more effective in the setting by Richard Pygott. This is an interesting piece, which alternates quite elaborate refrains for full choir – in Latin – with verses in English, which are suing by what sounds like a one-to-a-part consort. This piece is imaginatively sung, with good variety in the dynamics.

The choir sings well. Their diction is good and there’s a pleasing freshness to the tone. In one or two pieces I thought the choral sound was too biased towards the treble end of the spectrum; on those occasions a little more firmness in the bass line would have been welcome. Overall, however, the singing is very enjoyable.

This is an enjoyable and enterprising collection, which works on two fronts. It’s a nice disc in its own right, offering some welcome new listening for the Christmas season. In addition, it’s a good showcase for the book of music with which it’s linked and I hope that will stimulate interest from choir directors and lead to some of these pieces taking their place in the repertoire of choirs that like a challenge and something different. There is far more substance to this collection of music than the inappropriately twee picture on the front of the booklet might suggest.

John Quinn

An enjoyable and enterprising collection, offering some welcome new listening for the Christmas season.