Carols from Coventry - A Memorial Tribute to Sir David Willcocks
Saint Michael’s Singers/Paul Leddington Wright
Kerry Beaumont (organ)
rec. 10-12 February 2014, Coventry Cathedral
EM RECORDS EMRCD035 [58:28]
Traditional like a warm mince-pie, this collection is actually a tribute to the late Sir David Willcocks, who died aged 95 on 27 September 2015. The joy he has given to millions over the years via his carol arrangements is just one of his achievements, but it may well be what he is most remembered for. If his arrangements give you a glow inside, this disc is for you.
Anyone who’s ever been to a carol service stands a good chance of recognising a large number of these offerings. Mixed amongst the famous — the mighty O Come, All Ye Faithful that opens the disc, for example, radiantly recorded and sung here, or the interior intimacy of Once in Royal David’s City — are the lesser-known items. Based on a Latin poem Corde natus, Of the Father’s Heart Begotten, for example, takes a plainsong (Divinum mysterium), maintaining the feel of plainchant by alternating male and female voices for each verse, with four-part harmony only finally arriving in the final fifth verse.
The high voices of the Saint Michael’s Singers have a wonderful purity, beautifully revealed in Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing?; in this same carol, the pure legato of the lower voices is similarly laid bare. The lighter A Child is Born in Bethlehem, with its antiphonal gestures, has a real spring in its step here (as does Tomorrow shall be my dancing day); the first not to be a Willcocks arrangement is the Rutter version of the Sans Day Carol. This, apparently, was Willcocks’ favourite carol in the “Carols for Choirs” series.
The held-breath minimal dynamic level of Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, based on a Polish Christmas carol, heard in Willcocks' simple arrangement, is beautifully touching, the perfect foil for the (in comparison) behemoth of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The recording here is exemplary, the balance of the high voices against the low organ perfectly delivered.
One of Willcocks’ most magical arrangements is that of Ding dong! Merrily on high, with the opening descending-scale organ figures like so much tinsel draped over the famous tune; there’s a similar effect in Philip Ledger’s The Bell Carol. God rest you merry, gentlemen is given a rather more sombre reading than one might expect, its end grand rather than purely joyful.
Nice to have two world premiere recordings here: first, Z. Randall Stroope’s This endris night, a setting of a 15th-century English lullaby. The harmonies are absolutely gorgeous; as the booklet notes say, there is a sense of “mystery and awe” palpably conveyed here. Secondly, Wassail, traditional English and arranged by Jonathan Willcocks. The echoes of “Wassail” are rousing indeed; the contrast with the straightforward jollity of the ensuing Jingle Bells is marked. The recording captures the cathedral acoustic while not allowing over-blurring – quite a juggling act.
The booklet notes are exemplary: readable and packed full with useful information. If a more traditional Christmas disc is required look no further.
O come all ye Faithful (J. F. Wade, arr. Willcocks)
Of the Father’s Heart Begotten (Piae Cantiones, arr. Willcocks)
A Child is Born in Bethlehem (Scheidt, ed. Willcocks)
Sans Day Carol (Cornish trad., arr. Rutter)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (English trad., arr. Willcocks)
Once in Royal David’s City (H. J. Gauntlett, arr. Willcocks)
Infant holy, Infany lowly (Polish trad., arr. Willcocks)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Mendelssohn, arr. Willcocks)
Away in a manger (W. J. Kirkpatrick, arr. Willcocks)
Ding dong! Merrily on high (16th-century French, arr. Willcocks)
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing? (French trad., arr. Willcocks)
God rest you merry, gentlemen (English trad, arr. Willcocks)
This endris night (15th-century English, adapted Z. Randall Stroope)
The First Nowell (English trad., arr. Willcocks)
Silent Night (F. Gruber, arr. Leddington Wright)
The Bell Carol (Philip Ledger)
Unto us is born a son (Piae Cantiones, arr. Willcocks)
Wassail (English trad., arr. Jonathan Willcocks)
Jingle Bells (J. Pierpont, arr. Willcocks)