This CD comes lavishly packaged, in the form of a small hardback book. I wasn’t quite so sure about the close-up photos of a new-born baby, complete with umbilical cord … emphasising, I suppose, an unsentimental approach to Christmas. The music on this superb recording certainly embodies that; it feels like a programme, not a series of tracks: the mediaeval and modern items are sensitively intermingled, and all the music is of high quality. The pieces have also been arranged so that the narrative of the Christmas story unfolds - though not in a slavish way.
One of the most striking items is on track 1, added to the programme - as Paul McCreesh explains in the excellent interview with Jeremy Summerly transcribed in the booklet - only days before the recording. It is a fine setting of Adam lay ybounden
by the young English composer Matthew Martin.
I don't propose to go through every item, but I will simply pick out a few personal highlights, with the proviso that the whole disc meets comparable standards. Jonathan Dove’s now celebrated The Three Kings
on track 7 is given the most convincing performance I have yet to hear. The powerful climax and the return to the strange, lilting theme of the opening are completely convincing, and riveting in the work’s narrative intensity.
Equally memorable is Kenneth Leighton’s setting of A Hymn of the Nativity
, a moving and unusual poem by the 17th
century poet Richard Crashaw. This includes a mesmerising contribution from the soprano Ruth Provost.
Leighton’s music here, like Dove’s in The Three Kings
, alternates great calm with surprising moments of drama. The same is true of Britten’s A Boy Was Born.
Based around the composer’s eponymous carol (for many years enshrined in Book 1 of Carols for Choirs)
, the piece takes the form of a set of variations, most unusual in a work for unaccompanied voices. Britten’s genius brings it off triumphantly, all the more remarkable in a composer just twenty years old - it is his op.3. The writing for the SATB choir is assured and imaginative - though very challenging, as many singers have found. The children’s choir is used sparingly but to great effect, notably in the combination setting of ‘In the Bleak Mid-winter’
and the mysterious 15th
century verses ‘Lully, lulley, lully, lulley, the falcon hath borne my make away. Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour
remains for me one of the finest things Britten wrote, with the solo treble rising magically out of the gentle harmonies of the choir.
So many things to enjoy; this is a recording for the connoisseur but also for anyone who loves top-class choral singing and would like to explore the huge and wonderful repertoire of Christmas music a little further than the oft-repeated ‘favourites’.
I must say a word about the quite exceptional recording. Douai Abbey is a fine building, but not, I would imagine, the easiest place in which to record a choir, or indeed a programme of this degree of variety. Not only have the engineers magnificently secured a balance between clarity and acoustical faithfulness; they have also allowed the building itself to have its say. Listen to track 2, the 13th
century hymn Veni, veni Emanuel
When the men sing (unaccompanied) their voices are surrounded by a wondrous resonance, which is emphatically not
a passing jumbo jet - despite the comparative proximity of Heathrow.
A truly outstanding disc - my congratulations to all concerned.
And another review ...
With a respectful nod to Bob Chilcott’s Naxos disc
, this release from Paul McCreesh is the finest Christmas CD to come my way in 2013. McCreesh’s releases on his own Winged Lion label have all been superb. So far I’ve only caught up with the larger-scale oratorio recordings (Berlioz
), but this smaller, more intimate disc is every bit as fine in a very different way.
It’s far from conventional Christmas fare, but that is one of its strengths. McCreesh says, in the accompanying interview with Jeremy Summerly, that he wanted to recapture the "sense of awestruck wonder” of the Christmas story. He does so by alternating between mostly monophonic medieval plainchant and music from 20th
century composers, culminating in a majestic performance of Britten’s A Boy Was Born
. It’s a brilliant choice of repertoire.
The medieval carols all sound very beautiful, reverberating brilliantly through the resonant acoustic of Douai Abbey. This Endere Nyghth I Saw a Syghth
is the most beautiful of all, the polyphony of its refrain echoing magically in a most evocative way, but all the other medieval texts, despite their monodic line, are enormously atmospheric too, sung as they are with the greatest discipline and intelligence.
The more modern works are all chosen with similar skill. Martin’s take on Adam lay ybounden
was the final work McCreesh added to the programme, but it makes for a spellbinding opening. Likewise, Pott’s Balulalow
is a gorgeous setting of a familiar text, very beautiful but somehow lacking in all sentimentality. His use of the soprano solo is a beautiful touch, distinctive without being distracting. Similarly, Dove’s setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ text about the three Kings is hypnotic in both its style and structure, with a gorgeous harmonic texture. The Howells and Leighton numbers both revel in their lush harmonies and the choir show themselves to be as adept at energising these stalwarts of the English repertory as they are at breathing life into the voices of a lost medieval world.
I don’t know if it was the Britten centenary that inspired McCreesh to include Britten’s A Boy Was Born
, but we should all be glad he did. It’s a radiant performance, laying bare the structure of Britten’s work and, again, using the Douai acoustic to magical effect. It caused me to reassess and to remember what an accomplished work this is, written (astonishingly) when the young composer was still a student at the Royal College of Music. I loved, for example, the way his setting of In the Bleak Midwinter
renders strange the familiar text, and it’s an inspired idea to meld it with the Corpus Christi
legend that is not too far from the world of Wagner’s Parsifal
. The first and third variations are particularly beautifully done and there is a pleasing sense of chaos to the cacophony of Noel
s in the final variation.
The musical vision of the whole programme is wonderfully realised and stunningly performed, with each line given just the right place in the texture. I particularly loved the characterful basses which underpin both the medieval and modern setting with rock-solid security and remarkable colour. Not only this, however, but they achieve striking clarity of diction and enunciation so that the text is always entirely clear: while full texts and - where appropriate - translations are included, you scarcely need them. Add to this the lavish presentation, informative booklet notes and beautiful photographs, and you have a winner. It’s a Christmas disc with a difference, but it’s also a triumphant success.
Previous review: John Quinn
Britten discography & review index: A Boy Was Born