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Drop Down, Ye Heavens – Advent Antiphons for Choir and Saxophone
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Drop down, ye heavens, from above [1:47]
Will TODD (b. 1970)
O Wisdom [4:36]
Pierre CERTON (1510-1572)
O Adonai [5:08]
Matthew KANER (b. 1986)
O Adonai [4:33]
Bonnie MIKSCH (b. 1970)
There is no rose [5:23]
Samuel RATHBONE (b. 1986)
O Root of Jesse [5:00]
Antoine de MORNABLE (fl. 1530-1553)
O Clavis David [4:57]
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
O Key of David [7:36]
Richard ALLAIN (b. 1965)
O Day-spring [3:44]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Praesepe iam fulget tuum [1:04]
Gareth WILSON (b. 1976)
O King of the Nations [5:19]
Stuart TURNBULL (b. 1975)
O Emmanuel [4:59]
Josquin des PREZ (c. 1450-1521)
O Virgo virginum [7:08]
Ralph ALLWOOD (b. 1950)
O Virgin of virgins [3:24]
Sam Corkin (soprano and alto saxophones)
Siglio de Oro/Patrick Allies
rec. 12-14 January 2016, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
DELPHIAN DCD34184 [64:45]

This is a marvellously effective seasonal disc with a difference. As we all brace and head for Christmas, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the preparatory season of Advent in the process, and the splendid Siglio de Oro have done us all a service with this collection of Advent antiphons, some of which are new commissions, most of which are premiere recordings. This is their debut recording, and it’s daring, original and very successful.

Known as the O Antiphons because they all share the same first word, the Advent settings date from relatively early Christendom and address different aspects of why we celebrate Christ’s coming. The most famous is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, but together they form a set which was hugely important to medieval Christians. Michael Emery’s very informative booklet notes explain more about their context and history (and the rest of the booklet provides full texts and translations).

Surprisingly, however, relatively few settings of the Advent Antiphons survive, so for their programme Siglio de Oro have put together a few Renaissance settings with new works from living composers. These also contain parts for the soaring saxophones of Sam Corkin. The combination of unaccompanied choir and sax has, of course, been made famous by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, but it’s a tribute to this recording that, while they evoke those memories, they don’t suffer from the comparison, and they create something that’s very much their own.

The older anthems are all sung with great polish and impeccable blend. All polyphony needs to be recorded in a resonant acoustic, and the Church of St John fits that bill very nicely. Certon’s O Adonai has layers of polyphony cascading over one another in a way that is marvellously atmospheric, and which feels, at times, like a dialogue between the singers and the (very giving) acoustic of the building. Likewise, Antoine de Mornable builds a majestic structure to evoke the Key of David opening the doors of the prison of sin. Praetorius’ setting of Praesepe iam fulget tuum moves with quiet purpose and the dazzling extended structure of Josquin’s O Virga Virginum brings entrancing singing from the men in particular, with the crystalline soprano line over the top sounding beautifully devotional.

The new anthems are all very different, but they all offer something very strong, and I enjoyed each and every one. Matthew Kaner’s O Wisdom is spellbinding, with fairly freeform solo lines winging out over the choral texture and often drone-like saxophone line. Bonnie Mikisch’s There is no Rose is hypnotically effective, culminating in an Alleluia refrain that begins like a hymn and develops into a spiralling climax. Samuel Rathbone’s O Root of Jesse grows tentatively out of the sax’s opening, questioning song, and resolves into something beautifully harmonic where choir and sax seem to weave in and out of one another’s lines. The saxophone plays a searching, inquisitive role (“the protagonist of the drama”, as the booklet says) in Francis Pott’s O Key of David but the choir’s role is relatively still and definitely stabilising.

The music grows out of a tiny seed in Richard Allain’s O Dayspring, the choir separated into two with the saxophone placed in between them, and the music swells like a great wave before subsiding gently. Gareth Wilson’s O King of the Nations is a very moving plea, climaxing on the words “come and save mankind”, which the choir sings with urgency while the saxophone pirouettes above them. Stuart Turnbull’s O Emmanuel focuses primarily on the long-awaited name of the coming Messiah, from fumbling in the dark at the opening bars to excited adulation towards the end.

Ralph Allwood’s hymn to the Virgin builds from an understated beginning into a high climax which blends ecstatically with the saxophone. However, I think the one I enjoyed most was Will Todd’s marvellously exciting O Wisdom. The choral line is electrically bright and the sax line dances around it like a flame. This is clearly the same composer as the one who wrote Mass in Blue and, even more, Christus est Stella. Judith Weir’s setting of the conventional Advent Prose is direct but beautifully harmonised.

This is a most welcome release, then. The programming, singing and playing are all excellent, and you have to hand it to the ambition of a young choir who begin their recorded career with a big idea and lots of new works. Hats off to director Patrick Allies who, I suspect, was the motivating brain behind the project. This disc deserves to do well.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn



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