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Lux de caelo – Music for Christmas
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
rec. January 2013, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
Full track-listing at the end of this review
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907615 [68:05]

Having already set down very successful discs of music for Advent and Passiontide, a disc of Christmas music was the logical next step for Clare College Choir and Graham Ross. I have been impressed with how successfully Ross has set about renewing Clare’s great choral tradition. This CD gives plenty more to celebrate.

For a start, they do what you would expect of them very well indeed. Regular “churchy” carols, such as A babe is born or Gabriel’s Message sound very good, though all ten verses of The truth from above is a pleasure which could, perhaps, have been slightly abbreviated. The quality of the singing is, really, every bit as good as what you’ll find next door at King’s College, but with the major difference of the very distinctive colour of the ladies which you won’t get from the King’s trebles. Naturally it's more mature but also more refined and with a little more refulgence to the sound, though that could also be something to do with the recording location. Their Mendelssohn Frohlocket is first rate, full of warm Romantic harmonies but also the dynamism of storytelling. Likewise, the opening of Britten’s A Boy Was Born revels in the composer’s daring harmonies and has plenty of space to breathe.

However, what makes this disc a little special is that Ross is every bit as interested in carols that come from the popular folk tradition. The choir throw themselves with vigour and success into numbers like Ru, ru chu or Praetorius’ chorale settings, which have more than a slight air of the dance to them. I really liked the contrasting takes on In Dulci Jubilo and Ross’s own settings of the Italian Tu scendi dalle stelle and the German Still, still, still. His Coventry Carol is spiky and threatening, as befits the subject matter, but his Lullay Myn Lyking is gentle and peaceful, in total contrast.

Instrumentally, in a few numbers they are supported ably by The Dmitri Ensemble who sparkle all over Mathias’s A babe is born and the Willcocks and Rutter numbers at the end of the disc. Great, also, are the twentieth century works. Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God is realised very successfully, as is Webern’s surprising Dormi Jesu. Most surprising of all, however, is the final juxtaposition of Rutter and Schoenberg. If it sounds crazy then it works brilliantly; in fact, the Schoenberg is a great way to round off the disc, bringing out the composer’s more approachable side without diluting all that made him such a revolutionary.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: John Quinn and Brian Wilson

Full track-listing

Benjamin BRITTEN A boy was born (theme) 2:36
William MATHIAS A babe is born 3:09
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY Weihnachten 1:21
TRADITIONAL The truth from above 4:57; Gabriel's Message 2:29
Michael PRAETORIUS Wie schn leuchtet der Morgenstern 2:29; Quem pastores laudavere 3:47; Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen 1:45
Johann Sebastian BACH In dulci jubilo, BWV 368 1:18
Michael PRAETORIUS In dulci jubilo a 8 2:19
Giles SWAYNE Coventry Carol, Op. 77 No. 4 3:53
John TAVENER A Hymn to the Mother of God 3:19
Graham ROSS Lullay, my liking 4:58
TRADITIONAL Ru, ru chu 3:50; Tu scendi dalle stelle 2:42; Still, still, still 3:20
Anton WEBERN Dormi, Jesu 1:21
TRADITIONAL Quelle est cette odeur agrable? 4:10
John RUTTER Nativity Carol 4:27
Arnold SCHOENBERG Friede auf Erden 8:42