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Alan BULLARD (b.1947)
O Come, Emmanuel - Music for Advent & Christmas
O Come, Emmanuel (2012) [39:33]
Ten Carols for Christmas:
A baby so small, a message so great (2008) [2:54]
A boy is born in Bethlehem (Puer natus) (2005) [2:25]
And all the stars looked down (2007)[2:38]
Hillside Carol (2000) [3:10]
The gracious gift (2008) [2:29]
This night (2008-09) [4:38]
Rose of such virtue (2011) [3:03]
Child in the manger, Lord of all (2009) [2:39]
A star as bright as day (2010) [2:39]
Merrily did the shepherds blow (2013) [4:27]
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge/Sarah MacDonald
Timothy Parsons, John Bachelor (organ)
rec. 30 June-2 July 2014, Ely Cathedral
Texts included
REGENT REGCD456 [70:39]

In 2013 I reviewed a disc of music by Alan Bullard, also made by Sarah MacDonald and the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College. The principal piece on their programme was his Lenten cantata, Wondrous Cross (2011). What I didn't know at the time was that this was the first of three such cantatas that Bullard has written for different times in the church calendar. There's a Christmas piece, A Light in the Stable (2013) and this present work, which is described as 'An Advent Celebration based on the Great 'O' Antiphons'.

O Come, Emmanuel is designed either for liturgical use or as a concert piece and it may be accompanied either by organ, an instrumental ensemble or a small orchestra. The work is dedicated to Sarah MacDonald and her choir and here they perform it in the liturgical version, which includes four hymns in which the congregation may join. The organ accompaniment is used.

In appraising Wondrous Cross I had an advantage in that I had recently sung in a performance of the work but all the music on this present disc is new to me.

O Come, Emmanuel consists of 22 sections, many of them quite short. All the music is accessible and Bullard has selected his texts well. The congregational hymns are appropriate to the season, though at least one of the tunes was unfamiliar, at least to me. There are some effective sections for the chorus, such as 'Chanticleer', which is mainly robust and dramatic. I also liked the section very near the end, 'And art thou come with us to dwell' in which Bullard has a poem by the English poet Dora Greenwell (1821-1882) sung by the female voices while the male voices sing lines from the familiar hymn 'O come, O come, Emmanuel'. It works very well.

The score knits together as a tapestry of Advent texts set to music that fits the words well. I should imagine it comes across effectively when experienced live though I'm not sure it's quite as convincing when heard on disc. This is a piece that one has to experience - and take part in - live, I think. Sarah MacDonald and her choir give a committed performance. I was disappointed by the ending, however. The piece concludes with Charles Wesley's great hymn 'Lo, He comes with clouds descending' sung to the noble tune Helmsley. Unfortunately, here the hymn is despatched at a pace that's so swift as to rob the tune - and the words - of their majesty. I don't know if the tempo was selected by the conductor or prescribed in the score but either way I think it's a misjudgement; I felt a bit cheated.

Ten individual carols by Alan Bullard complete the disc. All are attractive. I liked the irregular dancing rhythms of A boy is born in Bethlehem. Hillside Carol is appealing and it was a nice idea to include in a carol about the shepherds an obbligato recorder part, here played by a member of the choir. The gracious gift is a setting of the old text which is perhaps better known as 'Balulalow'. Bullard describes it as "a simple and gentle lullaby". This unaccompanied setting is very attractive. Rather more unusual is This night, which uses a traditional Hebridean poem that mixes Christian and Pagan imagery. Bullard's setting is powerful and imaginative; this piece makes a strong impact. The programme closes with Merrily did the shepherds blow. The outer sections of this striking carol are energetic and jubilant but there's a central oasis of lyrical calm before the musical high spirits resume.

This is a worthwhile disc, especially for choir directors and singers who may be looking for some different material for their Christmas repertoire. Alan Bullard's well-crafted music has been well served here.

John Quinn


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