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Cantique de Noël - French Music for Christmas from Berlioz to Debussy
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
Michael How & Luke Fitzgerald (organ), Ursula Perks (piano)
rec. chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, 2018
DELPHIAN DCD34197 [71:14]

Under Geoffrey Webber, the choir of Gonville & Caius College is becoming a much more celebrated part of the Cambridge musical establishment, and they’re doing a good job of standing up to their more famous neighbours at King’s, Clare and St John’s. Their recordings so far have wisely tended to focus on less familiar corners of the choral repertoire, helped by the Webber’s knowledge of some of the lesser known nooks of the choral world, and this disc of French music for Christmas is another good example.

The most important thing to say about the disc, and perhaps its biggest selling point, is just how French it sounds. If that sounds like stating the obvious, it’s meant as a compliment to how well thought-through the soundscape is. For one thing, they recorded it in Exeter College, Oxford rather than at home in Cambridge, because of its French-style organ. That really colours the texture impressively, most obviously for the Shepherds’ pipes at the opening of Berlioz’s Shepherds’ Farewell.

The choir sing with rich, open vowels in a way that makes them sound not at all like an English choir, especially one of this heritage. We’re a universe away from the Oxbridge era of David Willcocks or Philip Ledger, for example, with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels. There is a mellifluous sense of flow to the singing that suits the repertoire very well. It also helps enormously that they have a very convincing, Gallic-sounding tenor, who comes rather close to the haute-contre style at several points: even though he doesn’t go for the stratospheric top notes, he sounds as though he could.

The repertoire itself is very well chosen, beginning the disc with its two most famous numbers. The traditional songs are beautifully arranged, particularly the salon chic of Faure’s Il est né. I loved the two Gounod songs: his Nuns’ Noël reaches the heights of religious expression in waves of ecstasy, and his arrangement of Adeste fideles follows a similar path, doing very interesting things with the familiar tune while showcasing the organ brilliantly.

In fact, it’s in the Romantic numbers, sung with quasi-operatic Gallic ardour, that the disc is at its strongest. Here you’ll get something uniquely emotional, something that’s perhaps distinctively French in its approach, rather far from the way the British or the Germans do Christmas. Franck’s La vierge et la crèche is full of lush harmonies, and Guilmant’s Heart of the Infant Jesus is overtly designed to tug on the heart-strings. Massenet’s La neige is a lovely piece of religious sentiment for a soprano soloist and a flowing piano accompaniment. Conversely, the traditional settings are very fine, Léon Roques’ sounding pleasingly rustic.

Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio (no, me neither!) gives two beautiful numbers, including a celestial Alleluia for a beautiful set of soloists. Most unusual is Debussy’s Noël for the homeless children, a cri de coeur for the poor which resonates with the longing for victory in the contemporaneous Great War.

Delphian’s recorded sound is lovely, and the booklet notes, written by Webber himself, are an excellent guide to this Gallic world of élan, panache and beauté. Full texts and translations are included. This is warmly recommended.

Simon Thompson

Adam – Cantique de Noël [5:53]
Berlioz – L’adieu des bergers à la sainte famille (from L’enfance du Christ) [4:34]
Berlioz – O mon âme (from L’enfance du Christ)  [6:10]
trad., arr. Fauré – Il est né le divin enfant [1:36]
Gounod – Noël (Chant des religieuses de Uhland) [5:30]
Saint-Saëns – Domine, ego credidi [2:56]
Saint-Saëns – Alleluia [2:45]
trad., arr. Léon Roques – Nous voici dans la ville (from 40 noëls anciens) [3:39]
trad., arr. Roques – Quelle est cette odeur agréable ? [4:22]
trad., arr. Roques – Quittez, pasteurs [2:06]
trad., arr. Roques – Noël nouvelet [3:23]
Franck, arr. Joseph Noyon – La vierge à la crèche [3:16]
Debussy – Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons [2:39]
Guilmant – Cœur de Jésus enfant [5:24]
Massenet – La neige [1:46]
de La Tombelle – C’est aujourd’hui [3:22]
de La Tombelle – Dans les cieux règne l’allégresse [2:46]
trad., arr. Fauré – Noël d’enfants  [2:27]
trad., arr. Gounod – Portuguese Hymn (Adeste fideles) [6:28]


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