Christmas from Hereford
English trad. Arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) This is the truth sent from above [2:52]
Otto GOLDSCHMIDT (1829-1907) A tender shoot [2:03]
John JOUBERT (b. 1927) There is no rose [2:34]
Philip LEDGER (b. 1937) Adam lay ybounden [1:53]
Paul MANZ (1919-2009) E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come [2:22]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Lasset uns frohlocken, Op. 79, No 5 [1:42]
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-1987) Jesus Christ the apple tree [3:19]
English trad. Arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS & Thomas ARMSTONG (1898-1994) O little town of Bethlehem [3:21]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) arr. Mack WILBERG (b. 1955) O holy night! [5:59]
Richard LLOYD (b. 1933) God from on high (2011) [3:13]
Richard LLOYD A Hymn on the Nativity of my Saviour (2010) [4:41]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Sir Christèmas [1:37]
William MATHIAS Wassail Carol [2:05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden, Op. 79, No 1 [1:36]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) Sing we to this merry company [2:05]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) The Lamb [3:51]
Peter WISHART (1921-1984) Alleluya, a new work is come on hand [2:09]
14th century ar. David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919) Resonemus laudibus [1:56]
Haldane Campbell STUART (1868-1942) On this day earth shall ring [3:11]
18th century ar. David WILLCOCKS O come, all ye faithful [4:07]
Felix MENDELSSOHN Herr Gott, du bist unsre Zuffucht, Op. 79, No 2 [2:40]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Here is the little door [3:25]
Peter DYKE (b. 1965) Three Kings [2:06]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down [4:23]
Felix MENDELSSOHN ar. David WILLCOCKS Hark! The herald angels sing [3:10]
Hereford Cathedral Choir/Geraint Bowen
Peter Dyke (organ)
rec. 10-12 January 2012, Hereford Cathedral. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
REGENT REGCD388 [72:22]
It must be a difficult task to plan a disc of Christmas music. Does one fall back on the seasonal Usual Suspects or, alternatively, attempt to stimulate the jaded palates of CD buyers by packing your Santa sack with less familiar items? Either course risks alienating some purchasers so the canny choir director will steer a middle ground. It seems to me that Geraint Bowen has been pretty shrewd in his selections. As a glance at the track listing will confirm, there are several old favourites on offer from Hereford but also a few interesting choices. The latter include two pieces by Richard Lloyd who was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Hereford Cathedral from 1966 to 1974. Both of the pieces by him are here recorded for the first time. There’s also a piece by H C Stewart, whose most significant appointment was as organist and choirmaster at Magdalen College, Oxford (1919-1938). Fair play to Geraint Bowen also for resisting the temptation to include the too-ubiquitous Cornelius Three Kings in favour of an Epiphany piece – with a similar title but a different text – by his deputy at Hereford, Peter Dyke.
Bowen divides his programme up into music for each of the three elements of the Christmas season, Advent, Christmas itself and Epiphany. The latter is especially welcome since so much Christmas music is heard before 25 December that by then most people are “carolled out” and so only the dedicated churchgoer gets to hear music that’s specific to Epiphanytide.
The Advent items have been chosen discerningly. It’s appropriate to open with RVW’s arrangement of This is the truth sent from above since this haunting tune is a traditional Herefordshire melody. Later in the programme, by the way, there’s a nod across the county boundary because Geraint Bowen reminds us in his succinct, useful notes that the familiar tune of O little town of Bethlehem is an adaptation of a Gloucestershire folk tune that RVW collected in 1903. Reverting to Advent, the little anthem by Otto Goldschmidt is lovely and the Hereford singers do it proud. Goldschmidt, we learn, was the founder of the Bach Choir – so there’s a link with Sir David Willcocks, from whom we’ll hear later in the programme. Equally worthy of note is the exquisitely crafted piece by John Joubert and Philip Ledger’s delicate setting of Adam lay ybounden. Compared to Boris Ord, his predecessor-but-one at King’s College, Cambridge, Ledger takes a very different – but no less valid – approach to the text; I like his setting. I also like Paul Manz’s E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come, which seems to be establishing itself in the Christmas repertoire, and rightly so.
The selection of Christmas pieces includes the two offerings from Richard Lloyd. The more recent of these, God from on high, was recorded hot off the press, as it were, since the recording sessions took place just a few weeks after the piece was unveiled at the 2011 Festival of Lessons and Carols at Herford. It’s a disarmingly fluid setting, which I found most attractive. Its companion, an a cappella setting, was written for the same service in 2010. It’s a bit more ambitious harmonically but it too is very attractive. It wouldn’t be a Christmas disc without an offering from John Rutter but, then, his Christmas music is all-pervading because it’s so appealing to performers and listeners. I can’t recall encountering Sing we to this merry company before but I enjoyed it: it’s energetic and strongly rhythmical. Less to my taste is O holy night! This arrangement was made by the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for his choir to sing with The King’s Singers and, to be honest, it’s only for those with a musical sweet tooth. On the other hand, the Mathias settings are pithy and lively – though I think Geraint Bowen’s speed for Wassail Carol is a bit on the steady side, missing some of the exuberance of the piece as a result. The piece by H C Stewart was completely unknown to me but it justifies its inclusion and is well worth hearing.
In the Epiphany section we encounter music by Herbert Howells. So many Christmas discs include his A Spotless Rose. It’s a little gem but I’m delighted that Geraint Bowen opted instead for Here is the little door because in my opinion it’s an even finer piece. Bowen’s choir sings it with great sensitivity and, indeed, this is a high point in the programme. That said, the rendition of Bethlehem Down runs it close for sensitivity. It’s a matter of no little wonder that Warlock and his drinking buddy, Bruce Blunt, could have knocked up this piece simply in the hope of financing a Christmas bender. All they had to show for it, presumably, was an almighty hangover apiece but they left us a more lasting legacy - a musical gem of rare beauty. Peter Dyke’s Three Kings is very interesting. Most Christmas pieces that mention the Kings focus on their journey to offer gifts at the manger. Dyke has chosen instead the words of an old Flemish carol, translated by Robert Graves, which is mainly concerned with the tragic aftermath of the Kings’ visit: the flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. Dyke’s setting is rhythmically vigorous at the start but ends in a mood of sadness as the fate of the children murdered on Herod’s orders is related. It’s an unusual and thoughtful piece and I hope that this recording will bring it to the attention of people outside Hereford.
I enjoyed this attractive, thoughtfully chosen programme, especially the items that range away from the “tried and trusted”, though there is a good leavening of more familiar fare and those pieces are well done also. The choir sings well and Peter Dyke contributes strongly at the cathedral organ. The recorded sound and documentation are both good and this is a disc that’s well worth considering as a Christmas present for someone – or for yourself!
John Quinn
Well worth considering as a Christmas present for someone.