Christmas from Christ's - Carols by Warlock, Holst, and Vaughan Williams
The Choir of Christ's College, Cambridge/David Rowland
Jonathan Ellse and Sidharth Parbhu-Naik (organ)
rec. 14-16 March 2014, Chapel of Queen's College, Cambridge
REGENT REGCD446 [73:49]
Mid-October is a bit early for listening to Christmas carols but such is the reviewer's lot. In any case, there's not a sprig of holly or mistletoe in sight here, or any jingling bells. Instead, what is offered by David Rowland and the Choir of Christ's College, Cambridge is a thoughtfully compiled programme that illustrates the upsurge of interest in traditional carols on the part of three English composers in the early decades of the last century.
Vaughan Williams and Holst, those musical blood brothers, took a keen and practical interest in the folk-song tradition and most of the pieces by them that David Rowland has selected are the result of the work they did to collect, preserve and arrange traditional carols.
Holst is represented by his familiar setting of Lullay, my liking, which features a well sung soprano solo. We also get a chance to hear his Four Old English Carols. These are much less well-known but they're very pleasing. Now let us sing, for instance, is an appealing, restrained setting of an anonymous text. The alto solo in this carol is very well taken and both soloist and choir sing with great delicacy. That carol, like two of the others, has a fairly simple organ accompaniment. The one piece that is unaccompanied is Jesu, thou the virgin-born. This is slow and contemplative and each verse is sung by a solo voice with a choral refrain to follow. The solos are divided between an alto and a tenor. Both do well but the alto is especially fine. I don't think I've hear these pieces before, and certainly not as a set, but I'm glad to have heard them now and the Christ's College choir is a fine advocate for them. What a shame that there probably wasn't room on the disc for Holst's marvellous Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I bet this choir would have made a very good job of it.
The Vaughan Williams group begins with two unaccompanied excerpts from his Christmas cantata, Hodie. Both are very sensitively done. I particularly appreciated the performance of 'The Blessed Son of God'. It's a beguiling piece, "innocent of even one accidental" in Michael Kennedy's typically felicitous description.
The remaining VW settings are the collection of eight English Christmas folksong settings which he published in 1919. These are the forerunners of more sophisticated arrangements of similar material that he was to make in the future. David Rowland explains that in the 1919 publication each song is presented twice, once with a single vocal line and organ accompaniment and then in an unaccompanied four-part arrangement. Editorial decisions have to be made - for one thing, in the accompanied version it's not specified whether the vocal line is a solo or to be sung by unison voices. For the most part Rowland has opted for the versions with organ accompaniment though he presents the wonderfully haunting The truth sent from above in its a cappella harmonisation - I would have been seriously disappointed had he not done so. These folk settings are all very attractive and in the unison carols David Rowland takes good care to use varying combinations for different verses so that, for instance, we may get a solo verse followed by a verse for ladies and then one for the men. That's sensible since a few of these carols have several verses. The birth of the Saviour, a Derbyshire tune with seven verses, nearly outstays its welcome but for the most part I enjoyed these engaging, simple settings. VW would go on to make more sophisticated arrangements than these but the present set bring these age-old melodies and words back to life in a refreshing way.
Peter Warlock was a composer from the generation born immediately after Holst and VW. He too had a great interest in English music of the past and how it might be brought to a contemporary audience. David Rowland offers an excellent selection of his carols and carol arrangements. Pride of place has to go to Bethlehem Down. The Christ's College choir sing this exquisite little gem most sensitively and with great control. It seems amazing that this piece was published for the first time in a national newspaper - The Daily Telegraph - on Christmas Eve 1927. How times change: it's inconceivable that such a thing could happen today. Bethlehem Down disarms not only through its serenity but also through its essential simplicity. A Cornish Christmas Carol is a much more sophisticated affair, cast in eight parts and also using a semi-chorus at times. It's a musically wide ranging arrangement; indeed, it's the most ambitious piece in the entire programme. The present performance is excellent.
That judgement is true of all the Warlock performances. Benedicamus Domino is pretty well known nowadays but most of its companions are much less familiar. I loved the simple, strophic setting of I saw a fair maiden; it's a most appealing little piece. Just as enjoyable is the seven-part piece As dew in Aprylle. The fine performance that the choir gives of it right at the start of their programme sets out their stall most effectively for everything that is to follow.
Christmas may have come a little early with the arrival of this disc but that doesn't bother me in the slightest because I enjoyed this disc very much indeed. The singing of the choir is fresh and attractive throughout. It's also very clear; one scarcely has need to resort to the printed texts. There are quite a few opportunities for members of the choir to sing solos and without exception the soloists acquit themselves well. This isn't the first time I've heard the choir; a few years ago I bought their recording of music by the late Sir Philip Ledger, including his lovely Requiem (REGCD305), and I admired them very much on that occasion. I'm just as impressed by this latest disc; clearly David Rowland has done a fine job training this choir. I hope we'll hear more from them on disc before too long but for now this delightful disc is a welcome addition to the Christmas music section of my collection.
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
As dew in Aprylle [2:07]
Benedicamus Domino [1:50]
Bethlehem Down [4:12]
A Cornish Carol [1:22]
I saw a fair maiden [4:10]
A Cornish Christmas Carol [5:04]
Adam lay ybounden [1:28]
Where riches is everlastingly [2:46]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Four Old English Carols (1907)
1 A babe is born [2:45]
2 Now let us sing [3:22]
3 Jesu, thou the virgin-born [3:14]
4 The saviour of the world is born [2:10]
Lullay, my liking [4:08]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Blessed Son of God (from Hodie) [2:54]
No sad thought (from Hodie) [3:20]
Eight Traditional English Carols (1919)
1 And all in the morning [3:55]
2 On Christmas night [1:32]
3 The twelve apostles [4:13]
4 Down in yon forest [3:05]
5 May Day carol [2:16]
6. The truth sent from above [2:37]
7 The birth of the Saviour [6:18]
8 Wassail Song [2:36]
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