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All the World Tonight Rejoices -Contemporary Christmas music
Truro Cathedral Choir/Christopher Gray
Andrew Wyatt (organ)
rec. May 2021, Truro Cathedral
Texts included REGENT REGCD560 [72:58]
People all over the world associate Christmas with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. What is not always remembered, though, is that the Festival did not originate at King’s. The then Dean of King’s, Eric Milner White instituted it in 1918 but he took as his liturgical model a service first held in Truro in 1880, as Christopher Gray very pertinently reminds us in an introductory note in Regent’s booklet. In passing, I recall that a few years ago Regent issued a most interesting DVD set about the origins of Truro’s Nine Lessons and Carols, including a reconstruction of the 1880 service (review). So, King’s took on the Truro concept but in recent years Truro Cathedral has, if you like, returned the compliment by following a more recent King’s precedent. The late Stephen Cleobury significantly refreshed the King’s Nine Lessons and Carols through his instigation of the annual carol commission from a contemporary composer. Christopher Gray tells us that Robert Sharpe, his predecessor as Director of Music at Truro, instituted a similar tradition at the Cornish cathedral and a series of new carols has resulted; a good few of them are included on this CD.
Tellingly, no less than eight of the 19 tracks on this disc are first recordings and several more items, even if they have been previously recorded, were first performed by the Truro Cathedral choir.
One or two very familiar carols appear on the list but, rest assured, even these are given new treatments. Philip Stopford’s arrangement of Once in royal David’s city is unusual in that it’s unaccompanied – as are the majority of items on the programme. We usually hear this sung as a congregational hymn but here Stopford provides a thoughtful and interestingly harmonised take on the familiar tune. I think it’s very successful. Later in the programme we hear an arrangement of Away in a manger, using the best-known tune. This version is by Gary Cole, the producer of this recording. Cole’s a cappella arrangement employs winning harmonies and the Truro choir sings it beautifully.
Two Cornish composers are represented. Russell Pascoe’s There is no rose is very good but I like even more an earlier piece of his. I sing of a maiden is for upper voices with piano accompaniment. The music is pure and innocent – ideally suited to upper voices. The piano part is, for the most part, arpeggiated in character and as I listened, I thought that perhaps the piece might be even better if a harp was used. I like Becky McGlade’s Infant holy. As Richard Longman observes in his helpful notes, the music is “uncomplicated”, but that doesn’t mean that the setting is not effective: it is. However, McGlade trumps that setting with her In the bleak midwinter. This is very lovely; I far prefer it to the Holst setting (overrated in my opinion) and it even gives Harold Darke’s classic setting a run for its money. From the notes it appears that the piece is written in just four parts. The harmonies are so rich that, to be honest, I found it hard to believe that at times. This is a setting that deserves to be widely known and performed.
Another winner comes in the shape of All my heart this night rejoices by the late Richard Shephard. This is another carol first performed by the Truro Cathedral choir. It features a fine, flowing melody which seems right out of the English folk tradition, though so far as I know the melody is an original one. I liked this excellent composition very much and the two soloists, treble and tenor, acquit themselves very well.
I very much liked the delicacy and innocence of Neil Cox’s I sing of a maiden. Two carols have direct connections with members of the Truro choir. Two former Head Choristers, Benji Harvey (b 2005) and Oliver Thorpe (b 2006) wrote the words which Sasha Johnson Manning set to music as All the world tonight rejoices. The text is a very good one and the music to which it is set is joyful. Helena Paish was one of the founding members of the Girl Choristers at Truro Cathedral; she’s since gone on to read music at Trinity College, Cambridge where she’s a choral scholar. Her carol While Mary slept is an impressive composition. The text, by Alice Archer Sewall (1870-1955), points up the contrast between Mary’s innocent joy at the birth of Christ and the pain that lies in the future. Paish’s music illustrates this dichotomy very successfully: the innocence of the upper voices contrasts with the dark tones and harmonies of the lower voice parts.
I should also mention James Whitbourn’s The Magi’s Dream, which is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, the music itself is very interesting, beginning in quiet tension and becoming increasingly dramatic. Secondly, the author of the very good poem that Whitbourn set is none other than the distinguished tenor Robert Tear (1939-2011).
I referred earlier to the King’s College tradition of commissioning new carols. By a happy coincidence – or is it? – Christopher Gray has chosen to include one of the earliest King’s commissions in this programme. Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem has become something of a classic; in my opinion it’s one of the best of the King’s commissions. It’s a fine piece and the Truro choir makes a very good job of it.
As I mentioned, most of the pieces on this programme are a cappella; the Weir, with its tiny but telling organ part, is one of the exceptions. However, Andrew Wyatt, the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music does get two chances to shine in solo pieces. Judith Bingham’s The dawn of redeeming grace turns out to be a ruminative and tranquil arrangement of Silent Night; it’s very pleasing. The programme closes with Variations on ‘Greensleeves’ by David Briggs, who was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Truro Cathedral from 1989 to 1994. It’s apt, therefore, to include a piece by him and there’s a Christmas connection in that the famous tune is long associated with What Child is this? After the theme there are five variations (I think). The second variation, with its use of reeds and Gallic-flavoured harmonies, particularly demonstrates Briggs’ love of French organ music. The final variation, a short but vigorous toccata, provides an exciting conclusion. Though neither of these pieces is an obvious show-stopper Wyatt plays them very well and gives us a good feel for the sound of the cathedral’s ‘Father’ Willis organ.
This is a really worthwhile collection of contemporary Christmas music. All the pieces, including those I’ve not specifically mentioned, are very good contributions to the Christmas repertoire and we can only congratulate Truro Cathedral for their collective foresight in encouraging so strongly the composition of new pieces. Congratulations, too, to Christopher Gray and his excellent choir who perform the music with skill and commitment. The sessions took place when social distancing was still the order of the day in the UK and, as the booklet photos show us, all the singers were distanced by a metre or so from each other. That must have presented challenges, not least that of hearing each other clearly in the cathedral’s resonant acoustic. However, I could detect no evidence that ensemble or tuning had suffered at all, which is testament to the skill of the singers and the excellence of their training. The distancing must also have presented a challenge to engineer/producer Gary Cole but he has recorded the choir very successfully. My only slight reservation is that in one or two of the items the choir’s words weren’t ideally clear, even when I listened through headphones. An example of this is Alexander Campkin’s The bells of the city of God, though I wonder if part of the problem here is the writing itself. The trebles are deliberately ‘out of step’ with the rest of the choir; it’s an intriguing idea but in a resonant building it doesn’t, perhaps, lend itself to complete clarity.
This is a very rewarding programme; it’s far from being ‘just another’ Christmas disc.
Contents Peter Tranchell (1922-1993) arr Peter Marchbank People, look east (1982) b [3:30] Gabriel Jackson (b 1962) Nowell sing we (2006)g [2:06] H J Gauntlett (1805-1876), arr Philip Stopford (b 1977) Once in royal David’s city (2007)b [3:46] Alexander Campkin (b 1984) The bells of the city of God (2018)*g [4:53] Julian Philips (b 1969) I sing of a maiden (2012)b [3:38] Helena Paish (b 2002) While Mary slept (2020)*g [4:14] Becky McGlade (b 1974) Infant holy (2019)*b [3:24] Richard Allain (b 1965) Coventry Carol g [4:04] James Whitbourn (b 1963) The Magi’s Dream (2011)b [3:20] Becky McGlade In the bleak midwinter g [4:11] Russell Pascoe (b 1959) There is no rose (2020)*b [3:31] Neil Cox (b 1955) I sing of a maiden (2018)*g [3:23] Judith Bingham (b 1952) The dawn of redeeming grace (2003) (Organ solo) [5:28] Richard Shephard (1949-2021) All my heart this night rejoices (2013)*b [3:08] Russell Pascoe I sing of a maiden (1995)*g (Piano: Christopher Gray) [2:54] William J Kirkpatrick, arr Gary Cole (b 1957) Away in a manger b [2:56] Judith Weir (b 1954) Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985)g [2:27] Sasha Johnson Manning (b 1963) All the world tonight rejoices*b [3:50] David Briggs (b 1962) Variations on ‘Greensleeves’(2005) (Organ solo) [8:23]
b denotes Truro Cathedral Choir with its boy choristers g denotes Truro Cathedral Choir with its girl choristers
* First recording