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Now may we singen - Music for Advent and Christmas
Ben Bloor (organ)
Choir of Westminster School/Timothy Garrard
rec. 2018, Keble College Chapel, Oxford, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD595 [67:15]

It is a commonplace to mention that this seasonal disc enters a thronged marketplace. Crowded it may be but where does it fit? It is pretty firmly in the British traditional sector – distant from mass-media glitter, star soloists and shallow tinsel values. Various things mark it out: the blend of Christmastide standards and 'new' carols vying for fame on the one hand; traditional hymn-style carols and (to me) completely unfamiliar names on the other.

This choir (SATB 14/8/7/10) is highly skilled. It benefits from the carefully calculated yet not stifling direction it receives. The acoustic and sense of place of Keble College Chapel (not Westminster School) lends a warm resonance. It delivers a sense of a great space but avoids leaching off the impact. The Choir of Westminster School is a school choir but with a completely grown-up tone: supple and responsive.

There are four traditional carols on offer, in mostly familiar arrangements. These provide the anchor. Once in Royal David's City has a nice opening solo and the choir found the mot juste when it came to tempo; not too somnolent and the beckoning danger of becoming a trudge is avoided.

Martin's Novo profusi gaudio enters the fray like a force of nature: forthright and meaning business. The red corpuscles are in abundance, underlined by Ben Bloor's plunging organ part. Drop down, ye heavens, from above by Judith Weir is as smooth as the later Wilberforce setting. The unaccompanied MacMillan, placid and smooth, has a flamed deckle edge to the singing. The buoyant Ghislaine Reece-Trapp's Alleluia! A new work is come on hand is quite a short and pleasing piece. It has a dancing proclivity, and is by a composer who also provides the thoughtful booklet notes. The Andrew Carter piece boasts a discreet organ part, and is, as you might expect, introspective. John Tavener is a figure who, rather like Tippett and Maxwell Davies, we have heard little about since his death. Ex Maria Virgine: Ave Rex Angelorum has much to engage the ear. This is a lively setting rather like Williamson in style. Those shouts of "Ave rex!" are barked out like "Vivat! Vivat!" in Parry's I was glad. It is full of interest, and struck me as being the aural equivalent of three-dimensional chess. The piece by Roxanna Panufnik also kicks over the traces and shatters the stained glass. It is a well chosen piece; its kaleidoscopically turbulent and unruly organ part recalls Malcolm Williamson's Third Piano Concerto and Vision of Christ Phoenix. Good to hear more Panufnik after the premiere in Birmingham the last month or so of the tremendous Faithful Journey - a Mass for Poland.

Of the traditional 'key-stones' It came upon the midnight clear is sung in elite hymn singing. There are no clever divagations to mark out individuality or draw attention to itself. O little town of Bethlehem again has nothing to disturb, and is sung with tenderness. Note, however, how effective is the pause in "O silently, O silently" which demonstrates an unglitzy integrity. Likewise the interlacing of men's and women's voices towards the end and some brief harmonic "collisions" ensure that the salt has not lost its savour. The organ remains in step with, and underpins, the choir. In the case of Hark! The herald angels sing there is a criticism: There should have been more joy; it's all a bit four-square. By the way, Charles Wesley was a Westminster School Alumnus. The concluding Once in Royal David's City is "steady as she goes" but coasts in perilous proximity to squat Victorian tone.

The Allain is another smooth piece with carefully limned-in part-singing. The disc title piece by Cecilia McDowall (much recorded by Dutton) is a freshly invigorating dancing carol. It is not short on bounce and elation. It fits luminously like a velvet glove, not chain-mail fist. The famous Poston is gentle and sensitively sung. The king of blis (grand title) by John Rutter is exciting. It is in much the same direction as Finzi's God is gone up!. It is a tribute to choir and director that they preserve the sense of being barely able to contain their elation. It also demonstrates towards its close a nice line in ululation rather like the finale of Hilding Rosenberg's Fourth Symphony. My music shine by Wilberforce sets words by George Herbert – another Westminster School alumnus. It is a smoothly tonal piece, perhaps too smooth for its own good because it slides occasionally into "Sing Something Simple" and Mike Sammes territory. We know that we can rely on Mathias for good things. His Sir Christemas does not disappoint. It find and draws out the same bloodied vigour as in his This worldes Joie. Its plunging organ part twists and turns as in a fight with a crocodile and the shouted "Noel". It makes a cheery and a slightly dangerous piled-high bonfire.

Pernickety to the Nth degree: but I do wish typesetters would distinguish their zeroes (0) from their Os. They are not the same. The track-list treats them as if they were interchangeable. The same goes for the otherwise magnificently set texts and translations.

More significantly, this disc this disc very successfully mingles settings that are unaccompanied and organ-accompanied. Some are lustily "danced" and sung, and some take their tone from reverential reflection. There is something for everyone within this broad range.
 
Rob Barnett
 
Contents
Matthew MARTIN Novo profusi gaudio [3:54]
Judith WEIR Drop down, ye heavens, from above [2:00]
GAUNTLETT, harmony: MANN arr. James O'Donnell Once in Royal David's City [5:11]
James MACMILLAN O Radiant Dawn [4:23]
Ghislaine REECE-TRAPP Alleluia! A new work is come on hand [1:51]
Andrew CARTER Mary's Magnificat [3:31]
John TAVENER (1944-2013) Ex Maria Virgine: Ave Rex Angelorum [3:10]
TRAD adapted SULLIVAN arr. David Willcocks It came upon the midnight clear [3:27]
Richard ALLAIN Lullay, myn lyking [5:08]
Cecilia MCDOWALL Now may we singen [3:15]
John RUTTER The King of Blis [3:57]
TRAD arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams (descant by Timothy Garrard) O little town of Bethlehem [3:45]
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-1987) Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree [3:26]
Roxanna PANUFNIK Angels Sing: Jesus Christ is Born [1:13]
Richard WILBERFORCE My Musick Shine [5:07]
MENDELSSOHN arr. David Willcocks Hark! The herald angels sing [3:31]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Sir Christèmas [1:33]
Alexander CAMPKIN Sleep, Holy Babe [4:40]
ANON arr. David Willcocks O come, all ye faithful [4:09]

 



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