Lux de caelo - Music for Christmas
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London.
Texts and English, French, German translations included
Track-listing at end of review
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907615 [68:05]
Just a year ago I greatly enjoyed a disc of music for Advent from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (review). I’m delighted to find that they’ve followed up that release with a collection of music for Christmas.
Their well-planned programme has a number of links running through it. One such is connections with Clare College itself. One link is pretty obvious: John Rutter, who really put the college’s choir on the map when he was Director of Music (1975-9). Rutter has produced and engineered this disc – as he did the Advent disc – and one of his most enduringly popular Christmas pieces, Nativity Carol, finds a welcome place. Other Clare connections may be less obvious – they certainly were to me. Cecil Sharp, the great pioneer collector of English folk songs, was an alumnus of the college. It was he who collected an eight-stanza version of The truth from above and this unforgettably haunting tune is heard here in Vaughan Williams’s wonderful arrangement, though I don’t recall hearing as many as ten verses sung before and at that length even this lovely carol is slightly in danger of outstaying its welcome. There’s also a Clare connection, previously unknown to me, with Gabriel's Message in that the English translation of this Basque carol is by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, a nineteenth-century college alumnus.
Another set of links comes in the middle of the programme where we encounter a group of pieces by Michael Praetorius. These pieces are all given with theorbo and organ accompaniment and very good indeed they sound. Intelligently, Bach’s harmonisation of In dulci jubilo is included within this group.
Towards the end we find Christmas pieces by two giants of the Second Viennese School. I’m afraid Webern’s spiky Dormi, Jesu is not remotely to my taste but Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is quite another matter. Written in 1906, it was the composer’s last tonal work – and in it he pushes tonality to its limits. The music is ferociously demanding on the singers but these students seem undaunted by its difficulties. Usually the piece is performed unaccompanied but Schoenberg also produced a version with instrumental accompaniment. I’m not sure the piece is often given in this version – I can’t recall hearing it – so it’s valuable to hear the composer’s alternative.
There’s a generous helping of more recent compositions and arrangements. One that stood out for me was A babe is born by Mathias. Here the players of the Dmitri Ensemble bring out the spiky nature of the instrumental accompaniment in a more successful fashion than I can recall hearing before. There’s a rather acerbic setting of the Coventry Carol by Giles Swayne and the richness of Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God is splendidly delivered. Graham Ross, the choir’s director, contributes a version of Lullay, my liking for voices and harp. It’s interesting though the ornamentation is rather too florid for my taste. However, his a cappella arrangement of Still, Still, Still is most attractive and the warm arrangement for voices and strings of the Italian carol Tu scendi dalle stele is a delight. In complete contrast Ri¨, Ri¨, Chi¨, arranged by Noah Greenberg, is exuberant and daringly earthy. This energetic performance is one of the best I’ve heard of this traditional Spanish carol.
Throughout this programme the Clare College choir sings superbly, demonstrating again that they are one of the finest Oxbridge choirs. The contributions of the Dmitri Ensemble are similarly excellent. This is a collection of Christmas music that dares to be different. Not everything here is completely to my taste but I still found the disc absorbing and the musicianship is consistently excellent. With very good recorded sound and a very well- produced booklet this is an intriguing and enticing Christmas package.
An intriguing and enticing Christmas programme that dares to be different.
A second review ...
I reviewed this as a 24-bit download from eclassical.com (it’s also available in mp3 and CD-equivalent 16-bit formats, all with pdf booklet). As such it’s superior to the CD – there’s no SACD equivalent – but I also listened to the mp3 download. In both formats the sound is very good, so the CD, pitched between the two in quality, should also sound fine.
This is a very fine successor to earlier Harmonia Mundi recordings from Clare directed by Graham Ross: Veni Emmanuel (HMU907579 – review and DL News 2013/17) and Stabat Mater dolorosa (HMU907616: Recording of the Month – review and DL News 2014/4).
There’s nothing hackneyed here, but a good mix of the old and the new. Traditionalists will look in vain for the over-familiar – no O come o ye faithful or the like – but they need have no fear about this mix of old and new: even the most avant-garde composers seem to mellow when composing music for Christmas, Webern apart (see below).
Giles Swayne’s setting of the Coventry Carol has its angular moments, but that’s very appropriate for a work whose theme is the murder of the Innocents. It starts quietly, with tinkling celesta accompanying the higher voices, but there’s no doubt about the violence when the men join in with Herod the King,/in his liking,/charged he hath this day … all younge children to slay, followed by about as cruel a shriek of exultation from the whole choir as you’re likely to hear from a mixed group of under- and post- grads.
By now John Tavener’s style is familiar and most of us have absorbed it. The Hymn to the Mother of God has now clocked up 26 recordings; I haven’t heard them all but Graham Ross and his forces capture the timeless quality of his music as well as any performers that I have heard.
Graham Ross’s own Lullay, my liking – likely to become one of Christmas favourites – and his arrangements of traditional Italian carols add something new to the mix without sounding either sugary or harsh – a perfect blend. Webern’s setting of Dormi, Jesu is perhaps the most angular music here: he’s a composer whom I’ve never been able to come to terms with and probably never will. Even Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden on the final track is much easier to come to terms with.
David Willcocks’ arrangement of Quelle est cette odeur agrÚable? is the most sugary confection on offer here. John Rutter’s Nativity Carol is pretty sweet, too, and I know that many think his style too overtly popular, but I’ve had a soft spot for his Christmas music ever since a colleague, who couldn’t stand it, gave me an LP, one of two recorded at Ely in the mid-1960s, with an earlier group from the same college, the Clare College Singers, now available on EMI 9469472 (2 super-budget-price CDs).
I said there was nothing over-familiar but most of us will have at least one recording of the three PrŠtorius works and his arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. Also, probably, of the Bach prelude In dulci jubilo, but none of that should put you off purchasing this recording.
The performances are every bit as good as those on the two earlier albums and the recording, as I’ve indicated, is very good. The tri-lingual notes are brief but to the point. Unfortunately the explanation that Webern’s Dormi Jesu is a two-part inverted canon didn’t endear me any more to the music. More careful proof-reading would have eliminated the missing t in our de force.
A very fine successor to earlier Advent and Passiontide recordings from this choir.
Benjamin BRITTEN A boy was born (theme)
William MATHIAS A babe is born
Felix MENDELSSOHN Frohlocket ihr V÷lker auf Erden Op. 79, No. 1
Trad, arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:The truth from above
Trad. Old Basque Carol, arr. Edgar PETTMAN Gabriel's Message
Michael PRAETORIUS Wie sch÷n leuchtet der Morgenstern; Quem pastores laudavere; Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; In dulci jubilo a 8
Johann Sebastian BACH In dulci jubilo BWV 368
Giles SWAYNE Coventry Carol Op. 77 No. 4*
Sir JohnTAVENER Hymn to the Mother of God
Trad. Spanish Carol Ri¨, Ri¨, Chi¨
GRAHAM ROSS Lullay, my liking*
Trad. Italian arr. ROSS Tu scendi dalle stelle,
Austrian Carol, arr. GRAHAM ROSS Still, Still, Still
Anton WEBERN Dormi, Jesu
Trad. arr. Sir David WILLCOCKS Quelle est cette odeur agrÚable?
John RUTTER Nativity Carol
Arnold SCHOENBERG Friede auf Erden
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