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O Magnum Mysterium
Choir of Clifton Cathedral/Christopher Walker, John Gibbons (organ)
rec. 23-24 October 1987, Clifton Cathedral, Bristol
HOXA HS071027 [52:45]

This is a lovely seasonal album. Despite having been recorded a third of a century ago, the sound, the singing and the organ playing are as if new-minted. The selection of music is a subtle mix of old favourites and new discoveries.

The ageless numbers include ‘Silent Night’ in a perfect setting by Christopher Walker, the children’s favourite, ‘Away in a Manger’ in a beautiful arrangement by Geoffrey Mendham and the ‘Sussex Carol’ in David Willcocks’ well-loved version. It is good to hear the ‘Coventry Carol’ in its original incarnation. Finally, Harold Darke’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ is always a great alternative to Gustav Holst’s miniature masterpiece.

Two of my favourite Christmas pieces are included on this disc: Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ and Francis Poulenc’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’. New (or maybe long forgotten) numbers to me were Sweelinck’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ and the ‘Echo Carol’ from the CŲlner Gesangbuch, arranged by the late David Wulstan.

One of the highlights of this CD is the interspersion of organ pieces throughout the programme. This includes a good concentration of J.S. Bach taken from the OrgelbŁchlein and the SchŁbler collections. The Bach chorales are played to perfection. The ‘recessional voluntary’ is the charming ‘NoŽl Suisse’ from Louis Claude-Daquin’s twelve published NoŽls. These are based on ancient country dances. Perhaps one would have expected a powerful warhorse as the concluding track but this piece is a meditation on Christ as a ‘little angel’ and on the God of Mercy; it makes a thoughtful conclusion to the recital.

The Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Paul is a brutalist, raw concrete building. Naturally, it won several awards and is now Grade II* listed. An important attribute of the structure is its interior functionality, and participating in any celebration of the liturgy, high or low, is an inspirational event. The stained-glass windows in the narthex are particularly stunning, as well as the remarkable Stations of the Cross.
The superb three-manual pipe organ was built by Rieger Orgelbau of Austria and was commissioned on the opening of the Cathedral in June 1973. Unfortunately, the organ specification is not included.

The liner notes leave a little to be desired. The composers’ details omit Christian names and sometimes their dates of birth and death (where appropriate), and there are no dates provided for the music. I concede this latter information can be difficult to establish in this kind of music. The booklet cover does not appeal to my taste: some people will love it. I would have used the snow scene of Clifton Cathedral, which is printed on the rear pages of the notes. More seriously, no texts are provided for the carols. Historical and musicological details of the works are minimal.

It is interesting to note that the Clifton Cathedral Choir is voluntary; they ‘aim to achieve the highest standards of performance in a wide range of music for the liturgy.’ This is splendidly accomplished here.

As noted above, everything about this recital is ideal. Reviewing this disc in the dying days of October put me into Christmassy mood. Despite the politicians and even clergy suggesting that Christmas is going to be ‘cancelled’ in this year of Covid 19, just listening to this CD fills the listener with Seasonal Joy and Hope. Quoting Robert Bridges, ‘The old words came to me by the riches of time/Mellowed and transfigured…’

John France

Jacob HANDL (1550-91) Resonet in Laudibus [1:25]
William James KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. Geoffrey MENDHAM (1899-1984) Away in a Manger [3:10]
Trad. Arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Sussex Carol [1:52]
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Wachet Auf, BWV 645 [4:48]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) O Magnum Mysterium [3:39]
J.S BACH Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 604 [1:24]
J.S. BACH Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV 605 [2:00]
Coventry Carol, original 1591 version [3:56]
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621) Hodie Christus natus est [3:22]
J.S. BACH In dulci jubilo BWV 608 [1:35]
Arr. Robert Lucas PEARSALL (1795-1856) In dulci jubilo [3:48]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863) arr. Christopher WALKER (b.1947) Silent Night [3:33]
J.S. BACH Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650 [3:20]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak midwinter [4:25]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down [3:42]
CŲlner Gesangbuch 1623, arr. David WULSTAN (1937-2017) Echo Carol [2:34]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772) NoŽl Suisse [4:01]

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