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May sweet OACD9049D
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The Sweet and Merry Month
The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford/Mark Williams
rec. 6-9 July 2021, Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford
OPUS ARTE OACD9049D [72:17]

Probably more music has been written in honour of May than of any other month in the year. May Day is celebrated around the world for a whole number of reasons, but the tradition of celebrating it in music at Magdalen College Oxford seems to go back to the very early 16th century. Certainly the choir’s practice of climbing to the top of the Magdalen Tower to serenade the rising of the sun on May 1st each year has become one of the essential musical events of each year – akin to the Christmas Festival of Nine lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge and the New Year’s Day celebration of Strauss by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – but certainly pre-dating both those. One Oxford promotional website suggests that “as part of an age-old celebration of the arrival of spring, Oxford residents and students alike gather on the city’s Magdalen Bridge at 6am on May 1st each year. The crowd listens in total silence, enraptured by the beautiful sounds of the Magdalen College Choir singing the Latin hymn Hymnus Eucharisticus – written by the College’s 17th century choirmaster Benjamin Rogers – from the top of Magdalen College Tower”. For two years the pandemic has prevented this annual tradition from taking place, but it was resumed this year (today, as I write this) and, according to the Oxford City Council website, “a crowd of about 12,500 people, stretching from Long Wall Street to the Plain Roundabout, listened to the choir. Traditional events and activities, including Morris Dancing and folk singing, then took place across the city as the bell of the Great Tower rang out”.

Although this lovely CD was recorded inside (at the church of St John in the city, where the acoustic is rather more generous than in the Magdalen Chapel itself) and in July last year, it perfectly captures that sense of dawn awakening on a bright spring morning with hints of summer in the air. The scene is magically set with a snatch of the dawn chorus and the college clock chiming six, marking the sunrise, and ending with a peal of the college bells. Some of the music has a strong connection with the college; in addition to the Hymnus Eucharisticus, there is Stainer’s Sicu Ilium which incorporates the College’s cry of “Floreat Magdalena”. The rest of the programme has some connection with May, Spring or Summer, opening with the ancient song Sumer is Icumen in. Magdalen’s current Informator Choristorum (as the Director the Magdalen College Choir is uniquely known) has cast his net astonishingly widely to pull in an almost mind-boggling array of music from early English madrigals, through Debussy and Britten, to beautifully sensitive arrangements of the traditional Scots song Loch Lomond and a perfectly poised one of The Beatles’ I’ll Follow the Sun. It would be invidious to identify highlights (beyond a simply magical and spine-tingling arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow), since every one of these 26 items is superbly sung, splendidly paced and immaculately presented with exceptional diction across all the singers.

The lovely sense of line, the enchantingly smooth tone and the exquisite vocal control Williams creates from his choir is a joy to behold, and the recording from Opus Arte sets them all in a warm, affectionate aural glow. A simply adorable disc.

Marc Rochester
Anon: Sumer is Icumen In (arr. Grayston Ives) [2:45]
Thomas Morley (1557-1602): Now is the month of maying [2:11]
Robert Luces de Pearsall (1795-1856): Lay a Garland [3:01]
Paul McCartney (b.1942): I'll Follow the Sun (arr. Grayston Ives) [2:14]
Anon: O lusty May [1:51]
William Cornysh (1465-1523): Ah, Robin, gentle Robin [2:25]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Linden Lea [2:58]
Anon: Loch Lomond (arr. David Overton) [3:26]
Benjamin Rogers (1614-1698): Hymnus Eucharisticus [2:25]
John Stainer (1840-1901): Sicut Ilium [1:18]
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Unaccompanied Part-songs Op.17, No.6 Haste on, my Joys! [2:10]
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918): Music, when soft voices die [2:25]
Harold Arlen (1905-1986): Somewhere over the rainbow (arr. Guy Turner) [5:16]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Chansons de Charles d'Orleans, no.1 Dieu! Qu'il la fait bon regarder! [2:12]
Anon: the Lark in the Clear Air (arr. James Whitbourn) [2:36]
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swan [1:41]
Carlos Gesualdo (1561-1613): Madrigals Book 1 - Felice primavera [3:21]
James Ireland (1879-1962): The Hills [3:19]
William Byrd (1543-1623): This sweet and merry month of May [2:36]
Peter Warlock (1894-1930): The Spring of the Year [2:16]
Anon: The Oak and the Ash (arr. Gordon Langford) [3:27]
Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623): In Pride of May [3:33]
Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517): Hora e di Maggio [1:22]
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op.30 - As Torrents in Summer [2:24]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924): The Bluebird. Op.119 [3:39]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Flower Songs, Op.47 No.5 The Ballad of Green Broom [2:12]

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