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Incarnation
Matthew MARTIN (b. 1976)

Adam Lay Ybounden [3:39]
Anonymous
Veni, veni, Emanuel [3:30]
Herbert HOWELLS (1893-1983)
Long, Long Ago [6:00]
Anonymous
Lullay, Lullay: Als I Lay on Yoolis Night [7:16]
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
Balulalow [2:56]
Anonymous
Qui creavit caelum [2:52]
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The Three Kings [4:37]
Anonymous
This endere nyghth I saw a syghth [7:06]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
A Hymn of the Nativity [6:54]
Anonymous
Letabundus [3:23]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Boy was Born, op.3* [29:10]
*Trebles of Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. 17-19 December 2012, Douai Abbey, Berkshire, UK.
Texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD346 [77:25]

Paul McCreesh has already made a significant contribution to the Britten centenary with his extremely fine recording of War Requiem (review). Now he offers a smaller-scale work, the masterly, early A Boy was Born, as the culmination of an unusually thoughtful programme.
 
This has been skilfully and discriminatingly put together. In what I suppose we might regard as the first half there are Christmas pieces from the present and twentieth centuries interwoven with medieval music; these lead up to Britten’s set of choral variations. The modern pieces are all fine ones. Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings, a setting of words by Dorothy L Sayers, was commissioned for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in 2000. It’s a beautifully crafted piece; much of the music is quite slow so the eruption of quicker music in the middle of the third verse is a real surprise. In the booklet note, which takes the form of a fascinating conversation between Paul McCreesh and Jeremy Summerly, McCreesh reveals that Adam Lay Ybounden by Matthew Martin was a late addition to the programme. I’m so glad it was included. The slow moving music has a sense of wonderment and mystery about it as it gradually expands in volume and intensity before dying away again. One has a palpable sense of mankind being freed from the bonds of sin. It’s a world away from the familiar Boris Ord setting of the same text. I’ve already heard a number of impressive choral pieces by this gifted young composer and here’s another one to add to the list.
 
The Howells piece is not one of his more familiar Christmas pieces - and how good to hear something that’s not so well known. It’s a setting of lines written by John Buxton (1912-1989) while he was a prisoner of war and published in a volume of poems in 1944. Though the composition date is not specified in the booklet I believe Howells wrote it in 1950 just a few days after the first performance of Hymnus Paradisi. It’s a fine piece and one wonders why we don’t encounter it more often, especially when heard in a performance of this quality. Kenneth Leighton’s A Hymn of the Nativity is a challenging but typically worthwhile piece which includes a prominent soprano solo, here taken extremely well by Ruth Provost. There’s also a soprano solo in Balulalow by Francis Pott. Here the solo part, sung by Emma Walshe, acts as a descant to the choir’s harmonies in the second stanza. It’s an exquisite setting.
 
The medieval pieces that are interspersed between the modern offerings include Qui creavit caelum, the Song of the Nuns of Chester, which dates from the 13th or 14th centuries. All I can say is that these nuns must have been rather jolly because the melody has a beguiling lilt to it and the music is joyful. It’s sung here by unison sopranos who produce a wonderfully fresh, pure sound in a winning performance. I find Lullay, Lullay: Als I Lay on Yoolis Night less interesting. It’s sung by a solo counter-tenor, Matthew Venner, and though he sings well, imparting a suitably haunting feel to the music, more than seven minutes of this piece is rather a long time; it’s too unvaried. Many will know the classic Vaughan Williams arrangement of This endris night. Here Paul McCreesh gives us the unvarnished original sung by a solo tenor who is joined by two other male singers in the refrains. This is spare, very atmospheric music.
 
We move forward from the medieval period to the fifteenth- and sixteen centuries for A Boy was Born. The texts that Britten chose were all drawn from that period with two exceptions: Rossetti’s nineteenth century verse, In the Bleak Midwinter, and a poem by Francis Quarles (1592-1644) which is part of the final movement. This was a student work, composed between 1932 and 1933. What an assured piece it is, not just in terms of the musical invention but also as an example of word-setting. What a flood of music Britten unleashes from a simple four-note thematic motif. The work includes an independent part for a boys’ choir. Paul McCreesh has made a most felicitous choice in inviting the Copenhagen boys to take part: this choir has strong associations with Britten’s music, not least the fact that it was for this same choir that he wrote A Ceremony of Carols.
 
This new performance is a very fine one. In the second variation, ‘Herod’, the men of the Gabrieli Consort offer some biting, vivid singing, the rhythms razor-sharp. The slow, fragile music of the third variation, ‘Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour’ is sensitively done. In that movement there’s an excellent treble solo from Nicholas Algor Swensen, who is beautifully recorded at a slight distance. The fifth variation mixes a verse of In the Bleak Midwinter, sung by the high voices of the adult choir, and the fifteenth century Corpus Christi Carol, sung by the boys. Much of this is delicate music and it’s extremely well done here. The complex and extended final variation includes no fewer than four different texts in a virtuoso compositional display. The Gabrieli Consort displays a tremendous ability to articulate words - and music - at a fast and furious pace, not least when singing an exciting volley of “Nowells” before the boys join them for the concluding, rapturous Quarles setting. This is a fabulous performance of A Boy was Born, one of the best I can recall hearing, and it sets the seal on an extremely fine disc.
 
This is by no means a conventional Christmas disc. Indeed, tinsel and holly are nowhere in sight. It is, in the best sense, a challenging - and hugely rewarding - programme which has been put together thoughtfully and with discernment. The performances are absolutely first rate and Winged Lion’s usual recording team of Adrian Peacock and Neil Hutchinson have captured not just the singing but also the lovely acoustic of Douai Abbey in a very satisfying recording. As I’ve mentioned, the notes take the form of a conversation between Paul McCreesh and Jeremy Summerly; that’s well worth reading for it tells us a lot about how McCreesh has approached this project.
 
I’ve enjoyed this disc enormously but, more than that, the words and music have made me stop and think, which is surely what Paul McCreesh intended. One final thought: the nature of this programme is such that I don’t believe that enjoyment of this disc need be confined solely to the Christmas period.
 
John Quinn  

Britten discography & review index: A Boy was born


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