The Spirit of Christmas Present
James WHITBOURN (b. 1963) Missa Carolae (2004) – Processional Introit and Kyrie [7:06]
James MacMILLAN (b. 1959) Dominus Dabit Benigniatem [4:42]
John McCABE (b. 1939) I Sing of a Maiden [3:21]
Francis POTT (b. 1957) A Hymn to the Virgin [4:28]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) Remember, O thou Man [3:21]
James WHITBOURN Missa Carolae – Gloria in Excelsis [4:08]
John WOOLRICH (b. 1954) Spring in Winter [2:27]
Stephen McNEFF (b. 1951) Carol of the Birds [2:50]
Trad. Basque arr. Howard GOODALL (b. 1958) The Angel Gabriel [3:46]
James WHITBOURN Missa Carolae – Sanctus and Benedictus [4:08]
James LAVINO (b. 1973) Before the Paling of the Stars [2:45]
Tarik O’REGAN (b. 1978) Bring Rest, Sweet Dreaming Child [4:39]
James MacMILLAN O Radiant Dawn [3:57]
James WHITBOURN Missa Carolae – Agnus Dei [4:18]
Franz GRUBER arr Jonathan RATHBONE (b. 1957) Silent Night [3:41]
The Elysian Singers of London/Sam Laughton
Mark Brafield (organ)
rec. Cranleigh School, Surrey, 8-9 January 2011. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
MERIDIAN CDE 84601 [59:35]
This disc contains a very enterprising selection of recent Christmas music. Though the music is unlikely to be widely performed outside the fairly narrow window of the run-up to Christmas and its immediate aftermath that’s no reason why it can’t be enjoyed on disc at other times.
I think it’s fairly unlikely that James Whitbourn’s Missa Carolae will be heard all that often outside the Christmas season since the composer has used a number of well-known carols as the thematic basis for the work. The Mass, which is sensibly dispersed among the other items on this CD – in a liturgical context one would not hear the movements in succession – was commissioned to mark the 1400th anniversary of the foundation of Rochester Cathedral and was first heard there at the Midnight Eucharist on 24/25 December 2004. The Mass is for choir with organ accompaniment and the musical style is accessible and direct. It seems to me that some parts work better than others.
It starts promisingly with a Processional based on the tune ‘Pa-ta-pa-ta-pan’, which segues (3:39) into the Kyrie. This Kyrie section, I think, is less successful for two reasons. Firstly, it is based on ‘Noël nouvelet’; nothing wrong with that except that the tune can be repetitive and, frankly, Whitbourn’s treatment of it is nowhere near as inventive as, say, that of Stephen Jackson – to be honest, it outstays its welcome a bit. Also, even at a Christmas Mass the Kyrie is still a penitential moment - the words are ‘Lord, have mercy’, after all. I don’t hear much by way of a request for forgiveness in Whitbourn’s setting. The main melodic inspiration for the Gloria is ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’. This is a suitably festive movement but I have a sense that the music and words are being shoehorned together a bit uncomfortably at times. The Sanctus, based on ‘In dulci jubilo’, works much better, I think, as does the Benedictus, where the use of Ravenscroft’s ‘Remember, O thou Man’ is very suitable. The Agnus Dei employs the Polish carol ‘Infant lowly’ to very good effect and in this movement Whitbourn’s music has charm.
The remainder of the programme includes pieces by some of the most interesting contemporary British composers of vocal music. One of the foremost of these is James MacMillan. His Dominus Dabit Benigniatem is challenging but rewarding both to hear and, I should think, to sing. This choir is no stranger to the composer’s music, having made a very fine recording of his Cantos Sagrados and other music in 2003 (review). I wasn’t surprised, therefore, that they make a very good job of this present piece, even though a comparison of the choir lists in the two booklets confirms that there have been many personnel changes since 2003. O Radiant Dawn, with its thematic reference to Tallis’s O nata lux, is a much simpler, more direct piece and it’s well done here.
The usual tune for Ravenscroft’s Remember, O thou Man crops up in the Whitbourn Mass, so it’s fascinating to hear Bob Chilcott’s modern take on the same words. His setting is mildly blues-inflected. It’s certainly different and Chilcott’s tune lodges in the memory. I like the piece. Impressive too, though very different, is John McCabe’s I Sing of a Maiden, which uses a solo SATB quartet as well as the choir; though I didn’t hear the “extraordinary stillness” that Sam Laughton mentions in his note. It’s only recently that I’ve come across Francis Pott’s fine A Hymn to the Virgin on a disc devoted to his music made by the choir Commotio. On that disc the pacing is fractionally slower and though the difference is marginal I think the Commotio performance gives the music just a bit more space – but the Elysian performance is a good one.
Stephen McNeill’s Carol of the Birds is an attractive piece in which both the melody and the surrounding harmonies take some unexpected and interesting turns. The piece by Tarik O’Regan, written for The Elysian Singers, is a demanding one which contains some effective choral writing – as usual from this composer – especially for the upper voices. I like the use of a harp to accompany the singers. The instrument’s sound conveys innocence but, perhaps also, a degree of chill.
The choir, which numbers twenty-nine, sings well – to judge by the photos in the booklet they’re all fairly young and they make a light, fresh sound and sing with enthusiasm and commitment. Several members of the choir take solos and all do well but I single out for special mention Geraldine Mynors, the soloist in Goodall’s arrangement of The Angel Gabriel. She has a rich, well focused voice and her singing is polished.
There’s some interesting Christmas music here by contemporary British composers, which can be enjoyed at times other than the Festive Season. The music is well performed and well recorded, and even when Christmas itself has passed for another year it will be worthwhile listening to this disc to invoke The Spirit of Christmas Present.
John Quinn
Some interesting Christmas music by contemporary British composers. It can be enjoyed at times other than the Festive Season.