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Christmas at Westminster Abbey
The Choir of Westminster Abbey
Christopher Herrick (organ)
Simon Preston
rec. 1984, Westminster Abbey, London
ELOQUENCE 482 8564 [57:12]

Australian Eloquence’s commitment to reissuing important discs, somehow overlooked by posterity, continues apace with a big batch of discs devoted to one of the greatest of all English organists and choir conductors, Simon Preston CBE, who celebrates his 80th birthday in 2018. A good deal of twentieth century organ repertoire, originally issued on Decca’s Argo imprint, is included in the current batch and I shall be providing reviews of these pioneering albums in due course. But to begin with here is a timely return for Preston’s classic 1984 Christmas disc with the choir of Westminster Abbey in splendid form, in this case on an issue originally released on Deutsche Grammophon.

In fact it has been re-issued before (on DG Masters) and I seem to recall it was highly regarded on its initial appearance; it also provided a bit of competition for Kings’ College Choir. One of its obvious attractions is the real variety of content offered. This is addressed in John Buttrey’s succinct explanatory note. The three official carol services at the Abbey take place on Advent Sunday (last Sunday in November), St Stephen’s (Boxing) Day and lastly on Holy Innocents’ Day which falls on December 28th. The repertoire Simon Preston selected for this programme reflects these three events and is presented chronologically, starting with a selection of Advent carols. Of these, Arthur Oldham’s Remember O thou man may be familiar to some readers. Oldham was of course best known as a choral conductor, most notably with the LSO Chorus. This delightful carol is a standout in this conscientious performance, the solo contributors delivering their words with rare clarity and real conviction. Charpentier’s Salve puerile is a gentle number from one of his many Christmas works (In Nativitatem Domini, H 414) - John Rutter’s arrangement falls gratefully for the voices of a Cathedral choir and provides a pleasant Gallic contrast to the predominance of German and English repertoire here. Preston takes Elizabeth Poston’s ever-wonderful Jesus Christ the Apple Tree rather swiftly – I don’t think I have ever heard a less tentative performance, its clarity truly shines through.

The St Stephen’s Day selections include a splendid Ding Dong Merrily on High, it is almost possible to see the smiles on the singers’ faces; this is curtly followed by Peter Maxwell Davies’ Nowell (Out of your sleep arise) - while this is certainly more challenging for listeners and performers alike, it is impossible not to be impressed by the diamond-cut precision of the singing. Another highlight is a rousing account of Hammerschmidt’s Alleluja! Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle.

Among the joys of this disc are the judicious (and delicious) contrasts of old and new, familiar and little-known, German and English (and Swedish, French and Czech). The final group of carols includes staples such as Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, the Rocking Carol (the solos here are meltingly beautiful) and the ubiquitous Good King Wenceslas, which concludes proceedings in an appropriately upbeat fashion. In between we have the fifteenth century English carol Illuminare Jerusalem which tells the story of the Three Kings (mens’ voices only) and Britten’s wistful A Shepherd’s Carol featuring a typically quirky text by W.H.Auden.

In summary , this is an imaginatively conceived programme of seasonal music, which is by turns moving, contemplative and uplifting. Performances and recording are outstanding throughout, and it constitutes an apt curtain-raiser for Simon Preston’s 80th birthday celebrations. Its return to the catalogue is very welcome.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Brian Wilson
Trad: Up! Awake! From Highest Steeple (Wachet auf!) (arr.Jacob PRAETORIUS) [1:20]
Arthur OLDHAM (1926-2003): Remember O thou man [4:56]
Trad: There Stood in Heaven a Linden Tree (arr.G.H. PALMER) [2:44]
Peter WISHART (1921-1984): Alleluya! A New Work is Come on Hand [2:12]
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704) : Salve puerule (arr. John RUTTER) [4:28]
Trad: The holly and the ivy (arr. Henry Walford DAVIES) [3:34]
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-1987): Jesus Christ the Apple Tree [2:49]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Resonet in laudibus (arr. Herbert BIRTNER) [2:37]
Trad: Ding Dong Merrily on High (arr. Charles WOOD) [1:57]
Sir Peter Maxwell DAVIES (1934-2016): Nowell (Out of your sleep arise) [2:42]
Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611-1675): Allelujah! Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle [3:37]
Trad: Up! Good Christen Folk (arr. G.R. WOODWARD) [1:17]
Trad: In dulci jubilo (arr. Robert PEARSALL) [3:32]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847): Hark! The Herald Angels Sing [2:19]
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654) : Puer natus in Bethlehem [0:41]
Trad: Rocking (arr. Sir David WILLCOCKS) [1:55]
John GARDNER (1917-2011): Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [2:09]
Trad: Illuminare Jerusalem [3:29]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976): A Shepherd’s Carol [4:55]
Trad: Good King Wenceslas [2:45]



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