A Choral Christmas
The Rodolfus Choir/Ralph Allwood
rec. 3-4 September 2010, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London
Full texts included
Detailed Track-Listing at end of review
The Rodolfus Choir, founded in 1984, is made up of singers aged from 16 to 25. They have been chosen from past and present members of the Eton Choral Courses as prospective choral scholars. Many members of the Choir are choral scholars; some are at Music College, and most hope to make a career in music. Several of their discs have been reviewed favourably on Music Web International and John Quinn very much enjoyed their “Bach B Minor Mass” (review).
The present recording was released last year with BBC Music Magazine and now comes as a full price CD (and well worth it). It is not to be confused with a previous disc “ A Christmas Collection” made in 2002. There was also a BBC CD of Bach Christmas music recorded in 2005 in Eton Chapel.
On this excellent CD Ralph Allwood has chosen old favourites, lesser known carols and Renaissance pieces by the likes of Byrd and Victoria, together with works by Poulenc, Tavener and Lauridsen. The music selected fits this splendid choir like a glove and demands the listener’s full attention; certainly not a disc for background sound; which I hate anyway!
The booklet is exemplary and has easy to read full texts, details on all the items, a short interview with Ralph Allwood, biographies and the names of the entire choir. Daniel Jeffe who writes on the works explains clearly how the compositions came to be and their influences. All very informative and will lead many to explore more by the composers.
Listening to the disc, one is immediately struck by the well blended sound of the choir. The two twentieth century pieces are sublime. Kenneth Leighton composed ““Lully, lulla” when he was only 18 and like Philip Radcliffe followed the tradition of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Both these carols show off the strengths of the choir with the splendid female singers counter-balancing the tenors and basses. “Lullaby, my sweet little baby” by one of my favourite composers, William Byrd shows off the skills of his polyphonic style. I’ve known John Tavener’s “ The Lamb “, set to words by William Blake, for over twenty years and here is fresh and vital as is his “O, Do not move” which was new to me. The final Tavener item the lively and uplifting “Today the Virgin” closes the recital. It was written in 1989, with words by Mother Thekla, (1918-2011) who had a huge influence on Tavener. These show the strong inspiration of the Russian Orthodox Church to which he was converted in 1977. My grandparents knew the Tavener family at a Presbyterian Church in Hampstead.
Eric Whitacre is a modern composer who I got to know through “This Marriage” sung at a cousin’s wedding; my introduction to this composer. “Lux Aurumque” has an ethereal quality and is beautifully sung here. It is deservedly one of his most popular works. “The Crown of Roses” by Tchaikovsky will surprise those unaware of the composer’s church music, which is considerable despite his doubts of faith, and could be a good example of “ Guess the composer?’ It is followed by Warlock’s popular “ Bethlehem Down” sung very soulfully here, although I thought it slower than I was used to. Along with Carol service staples Allwood has chose Christmas pieces by Palestrina “Alma redemptoris mater” a double-chorus motet and Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium”; both handsomely done. Lauridsen says he wanted" a quiet song of profound inner joy, a piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound” and for this listener he certainly has. Chris Chivers, presently a London vicar has produced a fine carol in “Ecce puer” helped by his time at Kings College School Cambridge; I look forward to hearing more from him.
“Lullay my Liking” is ravishing, and “The truth sent from above” with fine solos, represent English music stalwarts Holst and Vaughan Williams. Poulenc’s “O magnum mysterium” is popular this year on Christmas records and quite rightly so! Hubert Parry’s cheerful “Welcome Yule” seems almost to be over before it starts. Its good to hear music from Thomas Ravenscroft and it fits well between the Parry and a refined rendition of the appealing “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. Thomas Luis de Victoria is regarded by many as the eminent composer of his era and his “Ave Maria” is sung quite gloriously.
From start to finish this is a superb recital and I’m delighted it is available widely to the public. The test of a good CD is wanting to play it again immediately and this is certainly one. A Christmas record to be delighted to give or receive!
  David R Dunsmore
A very fine Christmas record with a good blend of the known, the new and original marvellously sung.

Full Track Listing

Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) “Lully, lulla” [3:27]
Philip RADCLIFFE (1905-1986) “The Oxen” [2:43]
William BYRD (1540-1623) “Lullaby, my sweet little baby” [6:09]
Sir John TAVENER (b.1944) “The Lamb” [3:56]
Chris CHIVERS (b.1967) “Ecce puer” [2:04]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b.1943) “O magnum mysterium” [6:46]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958 “The truth sent from above” [2:59]
Eric WHITACRE (b.1970) “Lux Aurumque” [3:57]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) “Lullay my liking” [3:41]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) “O magnum mysterium” [3:37]
Sir John TAVENER (b.1944) “O, Do not move” [1:49]
Giovanni da PALESTRINA (1526-1594) “Alma redemptoris mater” [2:42]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) “Welcome, Yule!” [1:11]
Thomas RAVENSCROFT (1582-1635) “Remember, O thou man” [2:27]
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-1987) “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” [2:59]
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) “Ave Maria” [4:44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1892) “The Crown of Roses” [2:37]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) “Bethlehem Down” [5:12]
Sir John TAVENER (b.1944) “Today the Virgin” [2:37]