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Christmas Music: Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Williams BYRD (1543-1623)
A solis ortus cardine [4:39]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Ave Rex - A Carol Sequence, op.45 (1969) [11:53]
John TAVERNER (1490-1545)
Mater Christi sanctissima [7:09]
William BYRD
Hodie Christus natus est [2:18]
O magnum Mysterium [5:48]
Puer natus est nobis [5:15]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-c.1559)
Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria [12:31]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Salve Regina (1941) [4:56]
Giovanni Pierluigi PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6) [11:47]
Joo Rodrigues ESTEVES (c.1700-1751)
Beati Dei Genitrix [3:37]
Verbum caro factum est [5:37]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Christ Church Cathedral, compiled 2014
NIMBUS NI7096 [75:42]

I have two reviews currently in progress which illustrate the healthy rivalry between my own alma mater and Cambridge. The other is a DVD recording of the 2013 televised Christmas broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge on King’s own label (KGS0008). The ‘other place’ has dominated my seasonal listening so far this year – I’ve also enjoyed a Harmonia Mundi recording from Clare College Choir: look out for my review of Lux de Clo, HMU907615 – but this new recording from Christ Church Choir helps to redress the balance.
There is none of the usual fare here – if you are seeking the old familiar, look elsewhere. You’ll find it, for example, on the King’s DVD, together with a leavening of the unfamiliar. Instead Stephen Darlington concentrates to very good effect on the Renaissance, the early 18th century and the 20th century.
The programme opens with as fine a performance of Byrd’s setting of the hymn A solis ortus as you are likely to hear even from specialist period performers, and this leads seamlessly into what is probably the most familiar music here, William Mathias’ sequence Ave Rex. That the transition is so seamless is a tribute to the versatility of the choir and a demonstration of how much modern British composers such as Mathias were influenced by their 16th century predecessors.
Music by Taverner, Byrd and Sheppard might be thought the preserve of the likes of The Tallis Scholars (Gimell), the Cardinall’s Musick (Hyperion) and The Sixteen (Coro) but, much as I enjoy their recordings of the music of this period, a first-rate cathedral choir with boys’ voices adds something extra. This is, after all, the choir whose first director John Taverner was and it’s still constituted on the same principles as in his day.
Reviewing a recent recording of Byrd’s three Masses on Hyperion from Westminster Cathedral Choir (CDA68038 – review) I mentioned the virtues of earlier performances of them by the Christ Church choir, available either on three separate Nimbus CDs with propers of feast days (NI5302, 5287 and 5237) or on a single budget-price disc without the propers (Regis RRC1336: Bargain of the Month – review). The four Byrd settings on this new release are certainly in the same league as those earlier Byrd recordings.
The longest work on the new release is John Sheppard’s Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria. As Stephen Darlington notes, Sheppard found it harder than his contemporaries to adapt to the new plainer style and this setting of a respond for Candlemas, probably composed in the reign of Queen Mary when the Roman liturgy was briefly restored, gives us the full pre-reformation works.
Darlington and his team give the music plenty of time to breathe and the result is impressive, but this is the one item on the new Nimbus recording where I would recommend looking elsewhere, to an all-Sheppard album from Stile Antico on Harmonia Mundi, Media Vita (HMU807509 – April 2010 Download Roundup) on which it’s given even more time to breathe yet seems to move inexorably forward in a manner which Darlington doesn’t quite achieve.
It’s a very minor disappointment and the succeeding Poulenc Salve Regina, another 20th-century work with roots in the past, more than makes up. Poulenc’s religious music can be made to sound clinical and unfeeling, but that’s not the case here.
Palestrina’s six-part setting of the Magnificat in the sixth tone just about qualifies for inclusion on a Christmas album – the words are attributed to Mary at the Annunciation and Lutheran composers such as Bach often set special Christmas versions of this Vespers canticle, with interpolated verses. No such interpolations here but a festive performance none the less.
As Darlington notes, Palestrina’s settings are smoother than those of his English contemporaries; it would have been instructive for Byrd’s English setting of the Magnificat from his Great Service to have been included for comparison but there’s nothing that I would have been happy to jettison to find room for it. In any case, you can do the comparison for yourself from The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd, where you can find all three Masses and the Great Service (CDGIM208, 2 CDs for the price of one). It’s interesting to see a counter-reformation composer and an English Catholic confined by the rules of Anglican music both setting the Magnificat in a less elaborate style than their predecessors.
The two final works by Esteves are a real discovery. Most labels would proclaim the fact that these are – to the best of my knowledge – premiere recordings. Certainly there are no others in the current UK catalogue. I somehow missed an earlier Nimbus release on which Stephen Darlington directs his choir in Esteves’ 8-part Mass and Christmas responsories (NI5516 – review) but I intend to catch up with that.
The recording places the choir at an ideal arm’s length, presumably not in their own cathedral, but see below for lack of information about the venue.
The booklet is a rather rudimentary affair, more like what one might expect from a budget label, with brief but apposite notes by Stephen Darlington on the music but no texts and no details of the date or place of the recording – the latter more important than you may think because the choir don’t usually record in the over-reverberant Cathedral but in Merton College chapel next door. Nor could I discover any further information from the Wyastone website but you can find the rear insert of the CD and  and sample the tracks there.
Don’t be surprised if, having heard the samples, you find yourself ordering the CD – why not use the MusicWeb International purchase button above?
Brian Wilson

Previous review: John France