I’ve heard quite a lot of David Bednall’s choral music on CD. I think this is the fourth disc devoted to his music, two of which were discs of short pieces performed by Matthew Owens and his excellent Wells Cathedral Choir (review ~ review). Most impressive of all was his Requiem of 2007/08 (review). In addition, individual short pieces by him have cropped up on a number of mixed recital programmes by various choirs; it’s clear that Bednall is making quite a name for himself.
He is an alumnus of The Queen’s College and a past organ scholar there in the late 1990s so it was highly appropriate that the college should commission him to write this new work The choir there gave the first performance of it in November 2011, making this recording shortly thereafter. The piece, which comprises fifteen movements, is scored for SATB choir, organ and solo trumpet - here the superb Simon Desbruslais.
In his very useful booklet note David Bednall explains that whilst he covers the main episodes in the Christmas story between Advent and the Epiphany there is no narrative per se on the grounds that the essential story is so well known. Indeed, not only is there no Gospel narrative but there is only one Biblical text in the entire score, the great text from St. John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’; this is set at the start of the last movement. So the texts principally comment and reflect on the Christmas story. Bednall has not shrunk from choosing texts that illustrate what might be termed the darker side of Christmas - the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion and Death; this is no bland, saccharine Christmas piece and I wholeheartedly applaud that. When reviewing an earlier Bednall disc from the Wells Cathedral choir I quoted something which the composer had written that particularly caught my eye. Speaking of how important to him are the words he sets he said that his aim is “to try to deliver an emotional charge in order to challenge the listener to think afresh about the words being sung.” He’s held true to that tenet in much of his work that I’ve heard in the last few years and it’s well in evidence here too.
The chosen texts range quite widely; the sources include Alexander Pope, Isaac Watts, Longfellow, Milton and Christina Rossetti as well as a couple of Magnificat antiphons from the Christmas season and some old Latin hymns. If this seems a disparate selection all I can say is that it has been woven into a satisfying whole. The title of the work comes from some lines by Richard Crawshaw (1612-1649) which are set in the last movement.
As for the music, David Bednall says that he wanted to make the music “emotive and immediate” and I’d say he’s succeeded. He mentions Howells as a composer for whose music he has a great love and that’s apparent from time to time in this score. The benign influence of several other English composers is evident too but it would be folly to listen to the piece thinking ‘that reminds me of so-and-so’ for Bednall is very much his own man. What I will say is that one can hear in this score the work of someone who has spent much of his life steeped in the world of English composers and, especially, in the music of the English church. He has clearly absorbed much of that through his musical pores. That said, one also notes an occasional Gallic tinge, especially in the organ part: one might expect that of someone whose organ teachers have included Naji Hakim and David Briggs.
Bednall says that most of the movements can be performed separately, for services, perhaps, or smaller scale concerts. I can see several of them readily having an independent life. In my view the prime candidate is the thirteenth movement, ‘But peaceful was the night’. This is a setting for unaccompanied choir of three stanzas from Milton’s Ode on the morning of Christ’s Nativity. Bednall comments that it is “in some ways the emotional heart of the work.” It’s a very beautiful composition which has a beguiling soprano melody set, in the first two stanzas, over warm choral harmonies. In the final stanza this melody really comes into its own as it’s heard while the rest of the choir cosset it with a hushed wordless cushion of harmonies. Beautifully sung by the Queen’s College choir, this is a winning little gem which I can see becoming an established part of the Christmas repertoire of many choirs: I hope so.
I’ve singled out that movement but there are several other very successful sections. The eighth movement, ‘I saw a stable’ is another charmer for unaccompanied choir. The music is very simple and highly effective. Also effective, though very different in character, is ‘Oh! little blade of grass’, the music of which Bednall describes as “dense and tortured”. It seems to me to take further the sort of complex harmonic language that Howells was using in his last years. ‘Ye heavens! from high the dewy nectar pour’ is the second of two settings of lines by Alexander Pope. This, Bednall says, “presents a utopian vision of peace”. It’s a very tranquil piece which is beautifully imagined for voices accompanied by a gentle, radiant organ part.
Not all is beauty, however. I said that Bednall does not shy away from the darker side of the Christmas story. His telling of the massacre of the Holy Innocents is highly imaginative. First he enlists Longfellow to depict Herod and his men in dramatic and unsettling music - Herod’s words are sung by a solo bass and the solo is well taken here. The really imaginative part of the setting comes later, however; unison female voices sing verses by Christina Rossetti over a quiet drone in the male voices. The ladies’ music is a poignant, deliberately stark monody - only in the third of the four stanzas does the line becomes two-part - and after each verse the trumpet delivers an equally stark comment. It’s desolate and affecting stuff.
Rightly, though, the score contains a good deal of music that conveys the joy of Christmas. Indeed, the very first choral movement, after an instrumental introduction, is a predominantly lively and extrovert a cappella piece setting just one word: ‘Alleluia’. There’s some buoyant, rhythmically vital music, again for unaccompanied choir, in the eleventh movement, ‘Tribus miraculis ornatum’, which is the Magnificat antiphon for the Feast of the Epiphany. And the final movement, ‘In the beginning’, ends the work on a joyous, indeed ecstatic note. Here the celebration - and the volume - builds incrementally in a most exciting fashion, the organ increasingly majestic, until on the very last chord the sopranos and the trumpet climb to a top C, ensuring that Welcome all Wonders ends in a mood of unqualified jubilation.
Welcome all Wonders is an inventive, resourceful and impressive piece. The choral writing is assured and imaginative. The trumpet part adds colour and brilliance to many of the sections. Until the last movement the organ part is more restrained than I’d expected but it’s still a significant contributor to the score and, as one would expect from a skilled organist-composer, it’s an imaginative part.
The performance is excellent. The choir of Queen’s College numbers 32 singers (11/7/6/8). They sing the work splendidly and with great assurance and commitment. The sound is fresh and clear, the choir achieving a satisfying blend and very good diction. There are several opportunities for choir members to sing solos and all do very well. The only slight reservation - and it is a small one - is an occasional lack of weight in the male voices, unsurprising, perhaps, in an undergraduate ensemble. However, the singers have clearly been trained very well by Owen Rees and I’m sure David Bednall was delighted by their advocacy. I don’t know how the organ duties were shared out between the two organists, presumably the college’s Organ Scholars, but the organ accompaniments are clearly in good hands - and feet. As for the important trumpet part, it’s played brilliantly by Simon Desbruslais. His tone is bright, silvery and exciting to hear; for much of the time he’s required to play strongly but he’s equally capable of silky soft tone and on those occasions the trumpet sound falls very pleasingly on the ear. The sessions took place in Keble College Chapel, no doubt on account of the organ there. The production was in the very safe hands of Adrian Peacock and David Hinitt so it’s almost a given that the recording would be admirable … and it is.
Welcome all Wonders is an original and very rewarding addition to the Christmas choral repertoire.
Youtube - David Bednall in conversation with Owen Rees, discussing Welcome all Wonders