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Mice in the Manger

A selection of
Christmas music -
enjoyed by

'... an amazing collection.'


Each of these three CDs celebrates its Christmas music in a different way.

The first CD is From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral. It has no carols at all, but consists of plainsong and polyphony from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century, divided into the Catholic seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.

The second CD is In Terra Pax and, despite its Latin title, consists of entirely English carols, written in the twentieth century.

The third CD is Joy in the Morning, which is compiled from both usual and unusual sources forming an amazing collection.

CD1 -- From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral. © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

The domes above the nave of the cathedral are not only works of architectural genius but their echoes and reverberations extend the life of every chord sent flying upwards by the cathedral choir. And that is not all. In 1922 the cathedral organ appeared in the nave and, when completed, seventy eight stops roared like lions and mingled in the domes with the choir's full force.

Thankfully, the cathedral singers have not abandoned the art of using the domes to send the voices skywards. Renaissance choral music by Byrd, Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria seems to belong naturally to the vast nave and its domes, even though the famous London building is barely a hundred years old. But the domes also respond on this CD to the gales of improvisation emitted by the organ as it guides the choir through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.

There is also a distinguished company of twentieth century composers who gave the cathedral choir rich additions to their historical repertoires. Among the most recent repertoire, however, is the sublime setting of Adam lay ybounden composed by Matthew Martin, who, being born in 1976, is one of the younger generation whose modernism is equally beautiful as the carol's mediaeval origins.

Listen -- Matthew Martin: Adam lay ybounden
(track 11, 2:15-3:07) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

This miraculous setting of four English verses from the fifteenth century acknowledges the English contribution to the cathedral. It is not cliché to say that this music is divine.

CD2 -- In Terra Pax

In terra pax - A Christmas Anthology. © 2009 Naxos Rights International LLtd

In order of birth, the carolcade can be classified as:
Old: Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Herbert Howells (1872-1983), Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
Middle-aged: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and John Gardner (born 1917)
Young: John Joubert (born 1927), Kenneth Leighton (1928-1988), William Mathias (1934-1992) and John Rutter (born 1945)

The purpose of this list is to demonstrate the evolution of British music during the last 125 years.

This raises the question: 'has British music improved?' For this reviewer, the answer is 'yes, and, to a large extent, through Gerald Finzi.'

Finzi's beautiful but simple work In terra pax excels all the others on this CD. He subtitled it 'Christmas scene' and set it to two texts, firstly one of Robert Bridges' lovely pastoral poems, and secondly, on a much-loved passage from St Luke's Gospel telling the Christmas story. With a sense of drama, Finzi leaves the poem's last twelve lines to end the music with a moving and contemplative coda.

The performance of In terra pax is superbly done by the whole company -- City of London Choir; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; the two sensitive and experienced soloists, soprano Julia Doyle and baritone Roderick Williams; and conductor Hilary Davan Wetton must have devoted hours to his study of the scores.

Particularly striking on this CD is the contrast between Gustav Holst's and Vaughan Williams' opening and closing of the programme music and the variety of lively inventions in later works such as John Gardner's version of the traditional carol Tomorrow shall be my dancing day in four verses with the refrain :

Sing o my love, my love;
this have I done for my true love.

Another stark contrast is formed here by John Rutter's carol What sweeter music can we bring / Than a carol for to sing. The words are by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) making another of this CD's beautiful melodies.

Listen -- John Rutter: What sweeter music
(track 11, 0:01-0:59) © 2009 Naxos Rights International Ltd

CD3 -- Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning. Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore. © 2009 Orchid Music Ltd

Joy in the Morning is the refrain sung by the carol singers who called at Mr Badger's underground home in The Wind in the Willows.

He ushered them in to join Ratty and Mole and Mr Toad who were already into the warmth and seasonal fare. The young singers felt at home because, of course, they were shy young mice.

This CD includes author Kenneth Grahame's carol and refrain, but here, it is sung by the far from shy Ex Cathedra choir, reinforced now by an Academy of Vocal Music; a chamber choir; a Vocal Consort of eight to twelve voices; a period instrument orchestra and a thriving educational programme.

Choral conductor Jeffrey Skidmore has initiated these energetic activities over the last forty years and he notes, 'in a world of conflict there are cynics who will dismiss our insignificant efforts, but it is a start for us to take personal responsibility'.

The complex Ex Cathedra organisation has reached its objectives as the Christmas music indicates.

But, The Wind in the Willows' sweet mouse-carol, set here by John Joubert, is not the only surprise.

Eight of this CD's twenty four Christmas offerings are non-British.

The whole programme begins with some fifth century Buddhist teachings translated by Vikram Seth (born 1952) and set by Alec Roth (born 1948) who, in a later composition, followed the opening passage of his oratorio The Traveller with Epilogue: Child of Son. The words of the second Indian contemplation have an impressive past, first in pre-fifteenth century BC Sanskrit and in Urdu by the nineteenth century Munshi Amir Ahmad Minai. The tenor and/or speaker in both of Alec Roth's excerpts is Samuel Boden, who also belongs to the Consort section of the Ex Cathedra group. Another non-English carol was written by the Lebanese organist-composer, the brilliant Naji Hakim (born 1955) who trained in the Parisian tradition and went from being a pupil of Langlais to succeeding Messiaen at La trinité.

Here, Hakim's own French text Noël is not Oriental so much as orientated to Europe.

Similarly, all the way from Mexico, Oy es día a de placer y de cantar -- 'today is a day for singing' is European rather than Central American with the music by Tomás Pascual (1595-1635) crossing the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Before Europe itself is finally reached, and starting with Germany's almost English Stille Nacht, Sweden's Lapland Ole leloila, plus the Scottish O horo eeree caidil gu Lo lullably -- O hush thee my baby, complete this non-English section.

The remaining sixteen carols, more or less in English, are either 'traditional', or nineteenth century or twentieth century.

However, the Ex Cathedra choristers sing with such energy and enthusiasm that even the familiar 'traditional' carols sound quite new. And that, perhaps, is Ex Cathedra's secret -- everything is new.

After all, there cannot be many carol concerts in which a group of young mice sing as they did in Mr Badger's home to a group of riverside friends such as Mr Badger himself, Ratty, Mole and the wealthy Mr Toad, in a concert including Giovanni Gabrieli's 'exquisite double choir setting' of O magnum mysterium, a 'gem of late-Renaissance Venice'.

Listen -- Giovanni Gabrieli: O magnum mysterium
(track 12, 0:01-2:26) © 2009 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Ex Cathedra's final secret lies between The Wind in the Willows and St Mark's Basilica, because author Kenneth Grahame's and composer Giovanni Gabrieli's masterpieces insist:

ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!

or, as the mice would put it, 'the animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their manger'.

Copyright © 29 November 2009 George Balcombe,
London UK
























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