On Christmas Night Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Truth Sent from Above [3:11] Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Bogoróditse Djévo [1:13]
Magnificat [6:46] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
A Spotless Rose [3:08]
Here is the Little Door [3:48] Carl RÜTTI (b.1949)
I Wonder as I Wander [2:09]
O Little Town of Bethlehem [5:40]
My Dancing Day [3:14] James WHITBOURN (b.1936)
Hodie [2:36] Will TODD (b.1969)
Softly [3:52] John RUTTER (b.1945)
Hymn to the Creator of Light [7:14] Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Lullay, Lulla, Thy Little Tiny Child [3:40] Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
The Three Kings [5:36] Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
On Christmas Night [24;48]
Exeter College Chapel Choir/Tim Muggeridge
Bartosz R Thiede (organ)
rec. Exeter College Chapel, Oxford, no data given. OXRECS OXCD-135 [77:13]
For their first Christmas CD since becoming a mixed-voice ensemble, the choir of Exeter College Chapel, Oxford, has chosen a programme of music written within the last 100 years. The Vaughan Williams setting of “The Truth Sent from Above” just makes it since this particular setting dates from 1919. Lucky for us it did, for this makes an arresting opening to a disc of somewhat uneven musical festivities. It displays the choir to its best, with a beautifully pure and graceful tone. Other must-hears on the disc include a suitably dreamy account of Will Todd’s “Softly” and an absolutely ravishing performance of Kenneth Leighton’s “Lullay, lulla, Thou little tiny child”.
Beyond these, other modern classics include the two wonderful Howells carols and Jonathan Dove’s gorgeous setting of Dorothy L Sayers’ “Three Kings”. Perhaps less frequently heard but fully deserving of a place at the table of any festive musical feast is Arvo Pärt’s gloriously energetic Bogoróditse Djévo, although his setting of the Magnificat makes for rather sombre Christmas listening. The three carols by the Swiss composer Carl Rütti are each wonderful gems, it’s just a shame that there are other memorable settings of the same texts which Rütti’s distinctive musical voice, with its mid-range drones and ambiguous tonalities, is unlikely to displace. Certainly the choir’s ebullient performance of “My Dancing Day” sells this music to me.
Other music on the disc has its moments but, like Bob Chilcott’s rather aimless medley of carols old and new, it often seems to outlive its interest-quotient. John Rutter’s Hymn to the Creator of Light is a world away from his usual chirpy Christmas style and seems oddly out of place here with its austere, unyielding opening. What celebration there is comes with the central section, but it lacks impact in this excessively restrained performance, and the closing part, with its none-too-subtle references to the chorale Schmücke dich, is more reflective than festive. No reason why it should not be, of course, for this was never written for a Christmas celebration, but its inclusion here takes the glitter off what to all outward appearances is a disc of Christmas music.
The most notable thing about the Exeter College Chapel choir on this recording is its impressive level of accuracy. Every tiniest detail of these scores is carefully and precisely placed, and while this does tend to result in a somewhat laboured feel to many of the performances, it certainly means we hear what these composers wrote with almost transparent clarity. Occasionally the musical demands of this adventurous programme stretch the young men of the choir a little too far – there are moments where they yearn for a stability of intonation they never quite achieve – and Tim Muggeridge is a little too pedantic in observing the phrasing of “A Spotless Rose” for this to flow as well as it could. But he moulds the final few chords so deliciously that one can forgive a certain heavy-handed feel to the direction.
In many ways the unsung hero of the recording (unsung in more ways than one – the review copy mis-spells his name, although I see OxRecs have now corrected this unfortunate error) is organist Bartosz R Thiede. His accompaniments, especially in the three Rütti carols, are magnificent both in their subtlety and the wonderful way in which he falls in with Muggeridge’s precisely clipped direction. He also delivers the complex organ writing of Whitbourn’s distinctly Mathias-like “Hodie” with perfectly-nuanced virtuosity.