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Alpha & O: Music for Advent & Christmas
Caius Lee (organ)
The Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge/Edward Wickham
rec. Chapel of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, 15–17 March 2020. DDD.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as 24/96 press preview from
RESONUS RES10268 [54:29]

Despite all the trials and tribulations which 2020 has brought, we still have almost the usual complement of new Christmas recordings this year. I’m working on a round-up of as many as I can, but I’ve already posted separate reviews of two: Ave Rex (CRD – review) and Baroque Christmas Concertos (Naxos, review pending).

Like the CRD, this was an early release, in late September. The CRD is not unusual in containing several first recordings, but, apart from the plainsong ‘O’ antiphons which mark the end of Advent, the music on the new Resonus is all by living composers. With several world premiere recordings, this is an apt successor to St Catharine’s earlier Resonus recording of contemporary Christmas music, Nova! Nova! (RES10159). We don’t seem to have reviewed that when it appeared in 2015, so I requested the 24/96 files for that, too. CD and downloads, up to 24/96, are available from and from Presto; mp3 and CD from Amazon UK; CD from ArkivMusic.

Most of the texts on that recording are traditional, as, for example, the opening The Holly and the Ivy, but the settings are modern, in this case by Richard Rodney Bennett.  Bennett is not the only well-known composer: there’s James MacMillan’s work which gives its name to the album, Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex eva. Not surprisingly, that’s the highlight of the programme, closely followed by John Tavener’s A Cradle Song, Giles Swayne’s There is no Rose and Roxanna Panufnik’s Alma Redemptoris Mater. The MacMillan apart, these received their first recordings on this album, alongside the music of some less well-known composers. The selling point of both albums is the inclusion of several first recordings.

The chants on the new recording are included largely because they are the peg on which Christopher Fox has hung his own seven antiphons. It’s Fox’s music which forms the backbone of this recording, but they are by no means the only reason to choose it.

The opening work by Judith Weir, My guardian Angel, sets the tone for an enjoyably thoughtful and predominantly beautifully soothing programme. That’s not to imply that it’s soporific: Judith Weir is hardly known for easy-going music, though this piece is not one of her toughest. In fact, even a crusty old duffer like me, always guarded in approaching contemporary music, can live with it and appreciate it. It’s an excellent opening to the programme.

Diana Burrell’s slightly angular setting of the traditional Green groweth the Holly challenges comparison with Henry VIII’s setting (Complete Music of Henry VIII, Chandos CHAN0621). I thought that recording of the musical monarch a little insipid – July 2009 – I can’t say that of this recording of the Burrell setting.

Christopher Fox’s antiphons are also cast in a different mould from the plainsong, but, like the best modern choral music – James MacMillan, for example, whose work features on the earlier St Catharine’s recording – they are clearly anchored in the long line of tradition. With Edward Wickham directing these performances – better known to me for his recordings of renaissance music with The Clerks’ Group for ASV – that link with tradition is especially apparent. He had already made a fine recording of renaissance music in honour of the college’s patron saint with the St Catharine’s Choir (RES10246 – review Autumn 2019/2).

Jeremy Thurlow’s Magnificat, which ends the programme, sung in English, unlike Paul Chiara’s earlier, more placid, setting of the Latin, is perhaps the most challenging work here – with noises off as of spirits in the air (‘the isle is full of noises’, not all of them friendly) as Gabriel hails Mary with the news that she is to give birth to Jesus. Angels are usually painted as friendly souls, but in Isaiah’s vision they are a bit scary, and the shepherds were certainly in awe of the angels of the Nativity. Yet it’s not just Cranmer’s timeless English translation that keeps the music from veering too far from more familiar, more comfortable, settings.

St Catharine’s Choir rises to the challenge of all the music on both these albums, and they make it perfectly accessible even to someone as chary about contemporary music as me. None of the music can have been easy to learn, but the female voices and the Girls’ Choir in particular make it sound easy. If you look every Christmas for new material, this could well be your choice for 2020. As heard in 24-bit sound, the recording is very good. My only reservation concerns the spelling of the college’s name – apparently the ‘a’ in the middle dates only from around 1860, when, oddly enough, my own college, St Catherine’s, Oxford, with an ‘e’, was founded, initially as an offshoot of Hertford College.

Other albums contain some contemporary Christmas music, but these two Resonus releases are solely dedicated to it, and the performances make it all palatable without trivialising it. As such, both are well worth having.

Brian Wilson

Judith WEIR (b.1954) My Guardian Angel [2:12]
Hannah KENDALL (b.1984) Nativity [4:28]
Joanna Forbes L’ESTRANGE (b.1971) Advent ‘O’ Carol [6:14]
Paul CHIHARA (b.1938) Magnificat anima meum Dominum [4:31]
Diana BURRELL (b.1948) Green groweth the Holly * [4:53]
Anon.: O Sapientia [0:54]
Christopher FOX (b.1955) O Antiphons: I. Alpha and O * [2:57]
Anon.: O Adonai [0:56]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: II. In a Flame of Fire * [2:35]
Anon.: O radix Jesse [0:55]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: III. Our Grace * [1:59]
Anon.: O clavis David [1:05]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: IV. Open the Gate * [1:53]
Anon.: O Oriens [0:47]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: V. Morning Star * [2:13]
Anon.: O Rex gentium [0:51]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: VI. A Cornerstone * [3:21]
Anon.: O Emmanuel [0:53]
Christopher FOX O Antiphons: VII. Trust Above All * [3:51]
Jeremy THURLOW Magnificat * [6:49]
* World premiere recordings

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