Christmas at Norwich
The Choir of Norwich Cathedral/Ashley Grote
David Dunnett (organ)
rec. 19-21 January 2015, Norwich Cathedral
Full track-listing appended PRIORY PRCD1148 [79:49]
Intended to function as “a snapshot of what Christmas at Norwich Cathedral is all about” (from conductor Ashley Grote’s excellent booklet notes), this disc mixes the familiar, indeed the expected, with a goodly selection of lesser-known choral works around the Christmas theme. Generous fare, too, coming in just shy of 80 minutes playing time.
Once in David’s Royal City (with Stephen Cleobury’s descant) begins with the silken thread of a boy treble, here the splendid Angus Murphy-Lennox. The choral sound is warm, but somewhat blurred. This carol is however lustily sung, particularly from the male contingent. The ‘bigger’ carols (God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and The First Nowell in the David Willcocks arrangements amongst the others) can seem to get lost in an acoustic soup. Yet Ashley Grote’s arrangement of While Shepherd’s Watched bucks the trend, offering fascinating harmonies in the more hushed, contrasting sections. The Sussex Carol is brisker than often heard, but is very effective, especially the silvery descending organ figures.
The encapsulation of all things chorally Christmas, John Rutter, is perhaps an inevitable presence on any Yuletide musical excursion. What sweeter music is perhaps one of his lesser well-known efforts but has that gentle warmth one associates with this composer/arranger. Its close is handled with true sensitivity, the diminuendo into nothing superbly managed by all. His gentle Dormi Jesu is one of the highlights of the disc, tender and intimate; the way phrases seem to blossom, flower-like, is particularly impressive.
Michael Nicholas (b.1938) was Organist and Master of Music at Norwich from 1971 to 1994. His appealing People look East features a slightly untidy treble line - to hummed accompaniment. The inclusion of music by William Mathias is to be welcomed: his A babe is born offers more taxing challenges to the listener than most items on the programme, and one emerges all the more enriched for it. The performance is exemplary.
Peter Aston’s Make we Joye is a wonderful piece, full of delight. Aston died in 2013, and was Professor of Music at the University of East Anglia and a Lay Canon of the Cathedral. Grote is quite right to describe this piece as “faux-medieval”, and as a study in this it is at once successful and massively enjoyable.
The mystic gentleness of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down is particularly well managed here; it leads to a rather less successful account of Grote’s Cradle Song, wherein the choral sound comes across as rather insubstantial. The Grote leads seamlessly into Silent Night, in fairness, heard here in a slow, almost meditative version.
Simon Preston’s arrangement of I saw three ships is remarkably complex, taking an ostensibly simple piece and elevating it to heights one would not have thought possible. There is the definite sense here that the Norwich choristers are relishing the challenge. The next item, Willcocks’ arrangement of O Come, All Ye Faithful, seems in context like something of a retreating.
Closing on Hark the Herald is a favourite trick for carol services, and the nations do indeed seem to be rising joyfully here, particularly in the sweet harmonic scrunchings of the final pages. There are few disappointments on this disc. Perhaps Vaughan Williams’ This is the truth sent from above is gentle but rather anonymous, and there is the somewhat swimmy acoustic in the larger pieces. Yet let not this put you off – there is music aplenty to enjoy.
Track-listing TradOnce in Royal David’s City (descant: Stephen Cleobury); Of the Father’s heart begotten; God rest ye merry, gentlemen; The First Nowell; O come, all ye faithful (arr. David Willcocks); While shepherds watched; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (arr. Grote); Silent Night (arr. Dunnett); I saw three ships (arr. Preston) Vaughan WilliamsThis is the truth sent from above; O little town of Bethlehem Philip Ledger Sussex Carol John RutterWhat sweeter music; Dormi Jesu Michael NicholasPeople look East Herbert HowellsA spotless Rose Peter AstonMake we joye William MathiasA babe is born Michael HeadThe little road to Bethlehem Bob ChilcottThe Shepherd’s Carol Richard AllainBalulalow Peter WarlockBethlehem Down Ashley GroteCradle Song Ben ParryVenite adoremus