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Born on a New Day – Christmas Music from Belfast Cathedral
Choir of Belfast Cathedral/David Stevens rec. 2017, Belfast Cathedral PRIORY RECORDS PRCD 1195 [66:10]
Growing up in rural Ulster, Belfast was always my “home” cathedral. I’ve spent many Christmas Eves in its nave at the Nine Lessons and Carols service, and I’ve witnessed the cathedral’s musical standards ebb and flow over the years, so I’m naturally well disposed towards this disc.
It’s a good one because the repertoire is quite unusual. In fact, with only three exceptions, I hadn’t previously heard any of these carols in these arrangements, so that makes it stand out a little from the crowd, recommending it for a gift, or even for somebody who already knows their Christmas repertoire well.
There is one issue to get out of the way first, though, and that’s to do with the resonance and the recorded sound. St Anne’s has a cavernous echo, something that’s not unusual for a cathedral, but which I’ve always thought was particularly severe. Sitting in the cathedral’s nave, the sound of the choir always struck me as being particularly distant and surrounded by even more of a halo than usual, and I thought they’d have tamed it for this release. Priory don’t seem to have done so, however. Rather than trying to capture a studio acoustic, they seem to have replicated what the sound would be like if you were sitting in the nave while the choir are in their stalls. That makes the choir sound pretty recessed and it puts an aural fog around the sound. That didn’t really bother me because it reminded me of what it’s like to be there, but I can imagine it might not endear the disc to a listener who doesn’t know St Anne’s well.
That said, that aural cloud actually suits some of this repertoire very well because much of it is reflective and thoughtful, so the long echo and ethereal sound increases its feeling of prayerfulness rather attractively. David Stevens’ own arrangement of Once in Royal is very pleasant, and the arrangements of the traditional carols are very effective. I liked the motivic insistence of The Holly and the Ivy, the buoyant Ding, Dong Merrily, and the thoughtful First Nowell, not to mention the brilliant swing to In Dulci Jubilo.
The newer carols are very good, too. Highlights are Matthew Orlovich’s gorgeous harmonic Nativity, the lush Romanticism of Entre le boeuf and Dan Forrest’s lovely Christmas Lullaby, alongside the hypnotic beauty of Sleep, Holy Babe. The title track finishes the disc very effectively, and highlights just how clear the choir’s diction is, too.
Belfast doesn’t have a cathedral school, so it’s a great achievement that, since 2012, they’ve put on a programme of daily sung services, the only church in Northern Ireland to do so. They recruit young ladies, often students, to supply the upper lines on this disc, and the sound of mature adults is very effective here. Some might criticise the sound for being rather top-heavy (the CD booklet credits 15 sopranos, 4 altos, 3 tenors and 4 basses), but this is what director David Stevens is used to managing, and it works for me. Its unusual combination also adds to the disc’s selling points. Their pitching is always very good, and the blend works well, with my reservations about the recorded sound. It’s only a shame that the cathedral’s fine organ doesn’t get an outing.
Why not explore it, then? There’s plenty here to satisfy the curious.
Contents 1 Once in royal David's city
Arr. David Stevens 3:32
2 The little road to Bethlehem Michael Head 3:25
3 Nativity Matthew Orlovich 4:06
4 Entre le boeuf et l'ane gris Arr. Paul Ayres 2:06
5 The Shepherds'Carol Bob Chilcott 2:59
6 The Holly and the Ivy Arr. Ola Gjeilo 3:50
7 Gabriel's Message Arr. Jim Clements 2:58
8 Ding Dong! Merrily on high Arr. Carolyn Jennings 2:11
9 A Christmas Lullaby Dan Forrest 3:56
10 The First Nowell Arr. Stephen Paulus 2:51
11 Joseph and the Angel Hafidi Hallgrimsson 3:23
12 Angels we have heard on high Arr. John Rutter 2:32
13 Jesus, Jesus rest your head Arr. Paul Halley 3:02
14 Sleep, Holy Babe Alexander Campkin 4:01
15 The Lamb John Tavener 3:52
16 In dulci jubilo Arr. Matthew Culloton 3:22
17 Morning Song for the Christ Child Peter Sculthorpe 2:47
18 Lulajze Jezunin Arr. Jacek Sykulski 3:30
19 Hark! the Herald Angels sing Arr. Stephen Paulus 3:08
20 Born on a New Day John David Arr. Peter Knight 2:21
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