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Gaudete! Christmas Music from Clifton Cathedral
Ian Bell (organ), Catherine Snelson (harp), Clifton Cathedral Choir/David Ogden
rec. 1997, Clifton Cathedral, Bristol, UK
HOXA HS970802 [50:08]

The added value to this lovely CD is the inclusion of several numbers from Benjamin Britten’s ever popular A Ceremony of Carols (1942). On the very few occasions that I have heard this work in the concert hall or church it has been in its entirety. The Clifton Cathedral Choir have selected eight numbers from the twelve and presented them at intervals during the programme.  The opening ‘Processional’ is particularly well performed here. The singers are heard in the distance and gradually get nearer to their choir stalls; it is very atmospheric and it works well on CD. ‘Wolcum Yole’, with a text written in Middle English is joyful and buoyant.  This is followed by William Matthias’s equally exuberant ‘Alleluya, a new work is come on hand’ with his characteristically rhythmical organ accompaniment.  In many carol concerts Henry John Gauntlett’s ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, fulfils its role as the introit. Here it comes as the third number, heard in David Willcocks’s ubiquitous arrangement.  Francis Poulenc’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is a bouncy piece written in the style of a madrigal and makes a splendid celebration of the Birth of Christ. ‘Away in a Manger’, the carol that we all learnt at Infants’ School, is heard in Willcocks’ setting.

Adding variety to these choral celebrations are several chorale preludes: four from J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein and two from Johannes Brahms. These iconic pieces sound excellent on the 1973 Rieger organ, the instrument installed at the time of the Cathedral’s consecration.

A lovely rendition of the hymn/carol ‘It came upon a Midnight Clear’ is then heard. Written by Arthur Sullivan and ‘souped up’ by David Willcocks (how often does his name crop up in reviews of Christmas music?), it is one of the Yuletide favourites. Two more numbers from A Ceremony of Carols follow: the prayerful ‘There is no rose’ and ‘This little Babe’. This latter piece has a vibrancy and urgency that seems far away from the tranquillity of the Nativity; in fact, it is a meditation on the theological dogma of Jesus becoming Incarnate to destroy sin and the works of the Devil.

After Brahms’ thoughtful chorale preludes ‘Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele’, op.122 no.5 and ‘Es ist Ein' Ros' Entsprungen’, op.122 no.8, we hear Britten’s jubilant ‘Balulalow’ followed by an introspective ‘Interlude’ for solo harp. ‘Gaudete’ is a traditional Scandinavian carol that was first published in Piae Cantiones in 1582. Unfortunately, back in the day (1972) it was taken up by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span: I have heartily disliked it since then! Neither have I warmed to John Gardner’s ‘Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day’. I cannot quite put my finger on it; it is just one of those things. It is neatly sung here, though, with some magical effects on the organ flues.  No carol service would be complete without ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’. This arrangement is by (once again) David Willcocks. This carol is difficult to execute to perfection; this is achieved here. The great Christmas Favourite, ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ is given a superb performance. Sometimes it is forgotten that this tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn. Usually heard in the Willcocks version, it is sung here in Richard Jeffrey-Gray’s equally impressive arrangement complete with an inspiring descant. The CD concludes with two, final numbers from A Ceremony of Carols: ‘Deo Gracias’, which includes the 15th century text ‘Adam lay ybounden’ and the ‘Recession’. This latter piece allows the choir to retreat into the vestry. The Cathedral, with the worshippers, is left in darkness and peace.

The liner notes provide virtually no details about this music. It seems a tradition of Hoxa Records not to include the forenames of each composer, and in this case, their dates.  A few notes about Clifton Cathedral, the Choir and the Organ are included. There is no organ specification.

The recording does not suffer in any way from having been made 23 years ago. It is as fresh and vibrant now, as it was then.

This is a beautifully performed CD which explores a wide range of seasonal music. The numinous atmosphere, so often lost in the commercial noise of Christmas, is present here in every bar.

John France

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942): Procession [1:45]; Wolcum Yole! [1:25]
William MATHIAS (1934-92) Alleluya, a new work is come on hand [2:05]
Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-76) arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Once in Royal David's City [3:57]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Hodie Christus natus est [2:21]
William James KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. David WILLCOCKS Away in a manger [2:27]
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Gott, durch deine Güte, BWV 600 [1:07]
J.S. BACH Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottes-Sohn, BWV 601 [1:32]
Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) arr. David WILLCOCKS It came upon the midnight clear [3:22]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: There is no rose [2:43]; This little Babe [1:27]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele, op.122 no.5 [2:19]; Es ist ein' Ros' Entsprungen, op.122 no.8 [2:51]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: Balulalow [1:16]; Interlude [4:30]
Trad. Gaudete [1:52]
John GARDNER (1917-2011) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [1:59]
J.S. BACH Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605 [1:45]
J.S. BACH Von Himmel kam der Engel Schar, BWV 607 [1:11]
Trad 16th century French Tune arr. David WILLCOCKS Ding Dong! Merrily on high [2:01]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47) Hark! the herald angels sing, arr. Richard Jeffrey-Gray (b.1934) [3:01]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: Deo Gracias [1:15]; Recession [1:49]

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