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Christmas at Westminster Abbey
Christopher Herrick (organ)
Choir of Westminster Abbey/Simon Preston
rec. 1984. DDD.
ELOQUENCE 4828564 [57:12]

Having just submitted my Winter 2017/1 Second Thoughts and Short Reviews, which should be online by the time that you read this review, I sat back and pondered which of the many Christmas recordings, new and reissued, contained there had made the greatest impression on me.

There was never any doubt that a Nimbus reissue of a 1988 recording, Thys Yool, on which Martin Best and his Ensemble offer a sprightly programme of medieval Christmas tunes, deserved special mention and I duly made that my Christmas Reissue of the Month. I’ve already written a more detailed review of that in 2008 under its original catalogue number – review – and Bruce McCollum has also reviewed the reissue (NI7103 – review).

Nor was there any doubt about this year’s turkey, the umpteenth reissue of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic sinking baroque Christmas concertos, including Corelli’s Op.6/8, under the weight of their treatment: steer clear.

I’m sure to bring the original CD of Thys Yool out of the back of the cupboard this year, as every Christmas, but what else from among the new releases and reissues is most likely to join it?

Pretty certainly it will be this reissue of a Westminster Cathedral recording dating from 1984. If one CD can be said to sum up Christmas, this is it: in its earlier incarnation on DG Masters 445572 it joins the select few that I always bring out of the recess, along with another DG recording, Paul McCreesh and his team performing a Lutheran Christmas Mass in Roskilde Cathedral, with music mainly by Prętorius (now on 4791757 at mid-price).

This Eloquence reissue stems from a Golden Age of Simon Preston recordings for DG Archiv. One of these, a budget-price 2-CD set of Purcell’s choral works with Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, is my prime recommendation for those unwilling to go the whole hog with the King’s Consort’s complete recording for Hyperion – and worth having even along with that complete set. (4594872). I’m pleased to see that Australian Eloquence have reissued several others alongside this Christmas collection, including Simon Preston at Westminster Abbey, a 2-CD organ recital on budget-price 4824933. Preston on the Westminster organ also features on Romantic Organ Music (4824941, two budget-price CDs), Messiaen Organ Works (4824917, two budget-price CDs) and Evensong for the Translation of Saint Edward (4802706, one mid-price CD).

I hope to cover some of these in forthcoming reviews, together with the recently reissued Variations on America on the Methuen Hall, Boston, organ (4828101), Stravinsky and Poulenc Choral Works with Christ Church Cathedral Choir (4828099), mid-price single-CD releases and another budget-price twofer Twentieth Century Organ Music on the organ of the Coulston Hall, Bristol (4824925).

If you were tasked with packing as many aspects of the music of Christmas – modern sentimental material excluded1 – into a programme just under an hour, I doubt if you could do better than on this Westminster Abbey reissue. The music ranges in time from an arrangement of the Lutheran Advent hymn best known in English as Sleepers wake, a fine choice to open the proceedings, and the liturgical prose Surge, illuminare (Arise, shine, for thy light is come) to works by twentieth-century composers. Above all we are reminded of the ubiquity of Christmas music: the final track, Good King Wenceslas, seems thoroughly associated with the season until we remember that the Victorian hymn writer J.M. Neale invented a legend of the Bohemian royal saint and set it to what had been a medieval Springtime tune, set down in the collection Pię Cantiones.

Arthur Oldham is by no means a household name but his setting of the traditional words Remember O thou man (15th or 16 th century) has been recorded several times, never better than here. Like the best twentieth-century Christmas music it manages to capture the spirit of earlier settings, such as that by Thomas Ravenscroft, while sounding unmistakably of its time.

Two other twentieth-century settings also remind us that composers sometimes rather given to challenging angularity in their music tend to offer something more traditional for Christmas: Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Nowell (1962), the latter still comparatively little known.

In my short review I chose Hammerschmidt’s Allelujah! Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle as an example of the vigour of these performances but that vigour is everywhere to be found throughout the proceedings.

Not that there is a lack of more thoughtful music, though it’s in a minority. I could have wished for a little more, something like Herbert Howells’ Here is the Little Door, but that’s on offer on another 2017 Christmas release, The King’s Singers Christmas Presence (Signum SIGCD497 – review) or Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, recorded for Christmas 2016 by The Sixteen (COR16146 – review).

Charpentier’s Salve puerile (Hail little child) certainly receives thoughtful treatment. Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed a number of Christmas works with the title In Nativitatem Domini (on the birth of the Lord) and the Westminster performance of a snippet from H414 should whet your appetite to explore this beautiful music further. If so, a good place to start would be with an Erato CD on which Les Arts Florissants and William Christie perform another such work, H416, with his better-known setting of the Midnight Mass for Christmas, H9 (8573858202). The CD is full price, but the Amazon download at £2.99 is only pence dearer than when I recommended it in 2008.

On an inexpensive Harmonia Mundi recording Les Arts Florissants perform H414, together with Charpentier’s Pastorale de Noėl, H483 (HMX2921082). The download from eclassical.com comes without booklet, as does the streamed version from Naxos Music Library and the CD costs little, if any, more at around £9.

I said that there was nothing over-sentimental here. The nearest thing is the performance of Sir David Willcocks’ short arrangement of Rocking, which receives a suitably heart-warming treatment.

The Westminster Cathedral choir performs all this music with thorough professionalism and Simon Preston’s direction is as persuasive as his Purcell. With Christopher Herrick, who has since offered us some very fine recordings, on the organ and a recording which stands the test of time, this reissue is strongly recommended: Christmas music very well covered in just under an hour.

1 Not that there isn’t a place for that, too, even though the supermarkets and stores drown us with too much of it. Another 2017 release, The King’s Singers Christmas Presence offers a wide-ranging selection which does include some popular schmaltz in the form of Mel Tormé’s Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Brian Wilson

Track List:

Traditional
Up! Awake! From Highest Steeple (Wachet auf!) (arr. Jacob PRĘTORIUS (1586-1651) [1:20]
Arthur OLDHAM (1926-2003)
Remember O thou man [4:56]
Traditional
There Stood in Heaven a Linden Tree (arr. G.H. PALMER) [2:44]
Peter WISHART (1921-1984)
Alleluya! A New Work is Come on Hand [2:12]
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
In nativitatem Domini nostri Jesu Christi canticum, Frigidę noctis umbra, H414: Salve puerule (arr. John RUTTER) [4:28]
Traditional
The holly and the ivy (arr. Henry Walford DAVIES) [3:34]
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-1987)
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree [2:49]
Michael PRĘTORIUS (1571-1621)
Resonet in laudibus (arr. Herbert BIRTNER) [2:37]
Traditional
Ding Dong Merrily on High (arr. Charles WOOD) [1:57]
Sir Peter Maxwell DAVIES (1934-2016)
Nowell (Out of your sleep arise) [2:42]
Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1675)
Allelujah! Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle [3:37]
Anonymous (Pię Cantiones)
Up! Good Christen Folk (arr. G.R. WOODWARD) [1:17]
Traditional
In dulci jubilo (arr. R.L. PEARSALL) [3:32]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Festgesang, MWV D4, ‚Gutenberg-Kantate‘: No.2 (adapted W.H. CUMMINGS as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) [2:19]
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654)
Puer natus in Bethlehem [0:41]
Anonymous
Rocking (arr. Sir David WILLCOCKS) [1:55]
John GARDNER (1917-2011)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, Op.75/2 [2:09]
Traditional
Responsorium Prolixum: Illuminare Jerusalem [3:29]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Shepherd’s Carol [4:55]
Traditional
Good King Wenceslas [2:45]


 

 




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