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]
Carl RÜTTI (b. 1949)
Three Carols: I wonder as I wander [2:09]; O little town of Bethlehem [5:40]; My dancing day [3:14]
James WHITBOURN (b. 1963)
Hodie [2:36]
Will TODD (b. 1970)
Softly [3:52]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Hymn to the Creator of Light [7:14]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child [3:40]
Here is the little door [3:48]
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The Three Kings [5:36]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
On Christmas Night [24:48]
Bartosz R Theide (organ)
Exeter College Chapel Choir/Tim Muggeridge
Recording details not provided
OXRECS OXCD-135 [77:13]

Exeter College Chapel’s new disc may be called On Christmas Night but, as its director’s sleeve notes indicate, the programme mostly of contemporary works is in fact constructed as an arch: it springs from the hope of the promised saviour to come as seen through Mary’s eyes, climaxes paradoxically with the irruption of light into the darkness of Christmas night with John Rutter’s hymn, and then levels the celebratory mood with a foreboding of the tragedy of Easter. As two carol cycles—by Rütti and Chilcott—are featured here, it is a pity that room could not be found for Howells’s third carol anthem Sing Lullaby. That would have complemented Leighton’s lullaby, and doubtless the choir would have sung it, like the latter, with affecting, lilting ease.

The ensemble, comprising young undergraduate members, is one of the leading mixed choirs among the college chapels of Oxford and Cambridge. They sound as technically accomplished as any professional adult choir. That is evidenced in the taut, pristine textures they evince, such as the glittering syllables which dart around in Pärt’s lively Bogoróditse Djévo, the staccato “sing, sing, sing” refrain of Rütti’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, and the galloping sequence in Dove’s The Three Kings before the cathartic recapitulation of the opening material.

A number of the works recorded here are inflected with the harmonies and rhythms of jazz and blues, reflecting director Tim Muggeridge’s interest in these genres, such as Todd’s Softly, and Rütti’s Three Carols. These come off pretty well, though as the choir are generally used to more straight-laced liturgical music one may forgive them if these sections lack requisite swing, such as the melody for the lower voices in the last of Rütti’s carols. After the sober plainsong-like introduction for solo soprano in James Whitbourn’s Hodie, the choir are on surer ground in the dynamic syncopations which burst in, more reminiscent of William Mathias’s idiom than jazz.

If, like me, you are allergic to the commercialised cheeriness of John Rutter’s music which seems to be virtually churned out on tap, the Hymn to the Creator of Light will come as a surprise for its more sincerely sustained chordal sequences and awe-inspiring, widely spaced harmonies. The choir sound a little strained in some of those, and later on the intonation is not absolutely secure. It is Bob Chilcott’s carol cycle (referencing existing carol melodies) which sounds the more manufactured. The choir turn in sympathetically executed performances, however, which also give more scope for the unnamed vocal soloists.

On a disc featuring mainly calm, reflective music, rather than ecstatic acclamations of Christ’s birth, somewhat more interpretive variety would have been more welcome, such as a more intensely mystical atmosphere for Pärt’s Magnificat and Howells’s A Spotless Rose, which feels too casual in its mysterious final cadences, and more dynamic contrast among the verses of Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of The truth sent from above. As it is, the recording—presumably made in Gilbert Scott’s chapel of Exeter College—lends the music ample resonance without obscuring the texture. The organ sounds a little recessed (which indeed it is in that building, in relation to the position of the choir), yet that ensures the balance between instrument and choir is never upset. Bartosz Theide has comparatively little to do on this disc with its several a cappella numbers or pieces with long solo choral sequences, but his support is eloquent and sensitive to the generally reflective nature of the music recorded. There is particular charm as he steals into the choral texture of Rütti’s O little town of Bethlehem between various lines of text.

Amidst the mad dash of Christmas preparations, this disc will provide a welcome oasis of thoughtful reflection upon the season’s deeper themes.

Curtis Rogers

Previous review: Marc Rochester

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