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Now May We Singen: Music for Advent and Christmas
Ben Bloor (organ)
Choir of Westminster School/Timothy Garrard
rec. 2018, Keble College Chapel, Oxford

As I write this, the season to be jolly is with us once again, and here is a disc to help us as a turbulent year draws to a close. What’s more, this particular Christmas collection is one that many music lovers will be happy to listen to throughout the year.

The taxing programme is performed by a normal SATB choir that is, none the less, made up of children and others who, whilst very young, probably don’t think of themselves as children any more. Children’s voices are an important component in British church and cathedral choirs, but there the lower voices, in particular, are taken by adults. Can the Choir of Westminster School rival them? Technically, the choir is in very good shape indeed. You will be impressed throughout by the group’s unanimity of attack, its tuning and the clarity of its textures. You will also be seduced by the infectious enthusiasm that is the particular gift of young performers, but which, in this case, is allied to an overall sense of musical discipline that is most impressive. The timbre of the choir when singing full out – such as at the opening of MacMillan’s O radiant dawn – lacks depth and richness compared to an adult choir, and whilst the upper voices are admirably pure the lower voices inevitably lack the round and rich characteristics which these excellent singers will acquire in just a few years’ time. This only becomes evident in exposed passages, however, and really is the only allowance that need be made, and a minor one at that. This is all credit to Timothy Garrard, Director of Music at Westminster School. Ben Bloor’s accompaniments are a major plus feature of this collection.

You are going to find here less familiar and even unfamiliar works alongside old favourites. Five congregational carols are included, of which ‘Once in royal David’s city’ will help keep your spirits up while you’re cooking the turkey. You might stop to listen to the third verse, however, a rather delicious preparation for upper voices by James O’Donnell, as you also might for Timothy Garrard’s adventurous descant in the final verse of O little town of Bethlehem.

The collection opens with a boisterous carol by Matthew Martin. Its irregular rhythms and audacious harmonies are full of good cheer without frightening any horses. Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir’s Drop down, ye heavens, is much calmer and simpler and comes over as that much more sincere. The sharp, stabbing organ chords that introduce Ave rex angelorum, plus the choir’s near-shouting, will come as a surprise to those expecting contemplative minimalism from John Tavener. John Rutter’s piece is also more exploratory than one has come to expect from this composer’s Christmas music. Richard Allain contributes an unaccompanied setting of the ubiquitous nativity text Lullay myn lyking. It’s a lovely piece, more involved than Holst’s celebrated version in the Oxford Book of Carols, though the musical language is barely more advanced. Roxanna Panufnik’s exuberant extract from her collection Angels Sing! is all too brief, and we’d also be happy to spend a little more time in the company of Richard Wilberforce’s significantly longer piece. An extremely beautiful setting of words by George Herbert, the work was commissioned by Westminster School and the choir relishes the difficulties it presents. Some of the dissonances might seem consciously applied rather than inevitable – I balk at the final chord – but this is probably the piece I will want to come back to most often. In the gentle sweetness of Sleep, holy babe, Alexander Campkin, an ex-pupil of Westminster School, demonstrates what he has learned, alongside numerous contemporary British composers of choral music, from figures such as Morten Lauridsen. The upper voices are particularly attractive in their verses of Elizabeth Poston’s exquisite Jesus Christ the apple tree, though I regret the conductor’s decision to ask his singers to clip the ends of phrases. There is not a poor performance, nor a poor work, amongst those I have not mentioned.

Ghislaine Reece-Trapp’s booklet note helpfully points out many important features of the music performed, and so becomes, as a good CD insert always should, a helpful listening guide. She should have resisted the temptation to praise the performances, though, as the listener has no need of it. She also contributes a short carol to the programme, which, we are told, is her first publication and ‘the Royal School of Church Music’s second best-selling carol ever.’ It’s a jolly piece, lively, modal and positive with some attractive pedal-point writing near the end. No wonder choirs have been keen to take it up.

William Hedley

Previous review: Rob Barnett

Matthew MARTIN: Novo profusi gaudio [3:54]
Judith WEIR: Drop down, ye heavens, from above [2:00]
H J GAUNTLETT: Once in royal David’s city [5:11]
James MACMILLAN: O radiant dawn [4:23]
Ghislaine REECE-TRAPP: Alleluia! A new work is come on hand [1:51]
Andrew CARTER: Mary’s Magnificat [3:31]
John TAVENER: Ex Maria Virgine: Ave rex angelorum [3:10]
Trad. arr. David WILLCOCKS: It came upon the midnight clear [3:27]
Richard ALLAIN: Lullay, myn lyking [5:08]
Cecilia McDOWALL: Now may we singen [3:15]
John RUTTER: The King of Blis [3:57]
Trad. arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: O little town of Bethlehem [3:45]
Elizabeth POSTON: Jesus Christ the apple tree [3:26]
Roxanna PANUFNIK: Angels Sing: Jesus Christ is born [1:13]
Richard WILBERFORCE: My musick shine [5:07]
Felix MENDELSSOHN arr. David WILLCOCKS: Hark! The herald angels sing [3:31]
William MATHIAS: Sir Christèmas [1:33]
Alexander CAMPKIN: Sleep, holy babe [4:40]
Anon. arr. David WILLCOCKS: O come, all ye faithful [4:09]

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