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Blissfully Serene

Carols from
Westminster Abbey -
enjoyed by

'... gravity-defying buoyancy.'

A Christmas Caroll from Westminster Abbey. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

In this confectionary Christmas programme, arrangements by Cleobury, Bowers-Broadbent and Robert Pearsall sit side by side with originals by Walton, Rutter, Leighton and William Mathias.

It's an affectingly assorted programme with items from Poulenc's surpassing Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel to the traditional I saw three ships, arranged by Westminster Abbey choir director James O'Donnell and sung here with gravity-defying buoyancy.

Poulenc's four liturgical Latin motets follow the opening old German carol In dulci jubilo (arranged by Pearsall) and are counterbalanced by the concluding items: Mathias' creatively heterogeneus Ave Rex, comprising five tracks.

Listen -- William Mathias: There is no rose (Ave Rex)
(track 18, 0:00-1:11) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

One valid measure of The Choir of Westminster Abbey's pre-eminence in the musical life of the British Isles may be determined by listing the CD labels for which it has performed -- Decca, EMI, Archiv Produktion, Polydor, Virgin, Regis Records, Griffin, DGG, Sony Essential Classics, Pinnacle, Chandos, Polygram Records, Hallmark, Abbey, Music For Pleasure, HMV, Argo, and now -- exclusively -- Hyperion.

It is fortunate in having James O'Donnell at the helm. For five years O'Donnell was Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, where he became Master of Music, aged 26. During twelve years he consolidated its world-wide reputation. In 1998 the ensemble landed a 'Best Choral Recording' award for its CD of masses by Frank Martin (1922 and 1926) and Ildebrando Pizzetti (1922).

In January 2000 O'Donnell was appointed Director of Music at Westminster Abbey, responsible for daily choral services, state occasions, concerts, tours, broadcasts and recordings. He is an internationally acclaimed organist, known for appearances throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. From 1997 until 2004, O'Donnell was Professor of Organ at the Royal Academy of Music, where he remains a Visiting Professor.

Listen -- John Rutter: Dormi Jesu
(track 9, 0:00-1:29) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Under his direction we can observe conspicuous mastery of the genre in Dormi, Jesu, a Latin text of unknown origin (translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and transformed via John Rutter's flawless choral writing -- as there is in Stephen Cleobury's divided vocal forces and upper register elements so joyously blended in Joys Seven.

The sheer, forthright Englishness of Kenneth Leighton's closely harmonized Christmas Caroll is somewhat akin to a certain astringent severity in the more inward later work of Holst and the coterie of composers busy in the shires between the great twentieth century wars.

Walton was most certainly never stuck for a tune when the occasion demanded, and the only problem I found in his exultant setting of the anonymous sixteenth century verses, All this time, is the 1'56" duration is simply too brief.

Since 2002, thirty-five-year-old Philadelphia-born composer James Lavino has been a member of the BBC Symphony Chorus and here his vocals for John Donne's Nativity (No 3 of seven sonnets titled La Corona -- 1618) reveal an endearing mood of subdued mystery that draws one close to the text.

Bob Chilcott's warmly economical setting of The Shepherd's Carol emphasises the folk-like simplicity of an Anonymous nativity text. No wonder; he was a chorister in the choir of King's College, Cambridge and formerly a member of the immensely popular and much travelled King's Singers.

The Three Kings text is by controversial feminist, crime fiction writer, and orthodox Anglican essayist, Dorothy L Sayers, creator of the English sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Listen -- Jonathan Dove: The Three Kings
(track 11, 1:56-3:04) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Its music is that of Jonathan Dove (born 1959), best known as a British opera composer/arranger including a famous eighteen-player two-evening adaptation of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen for City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Dove was Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival from 2001 until 2006.

Silent Night's oft-repeated story never palls with the retelling. So, here goes! While serving at the Austrian alpine village of Mariapfarr (1816), Catholic priest Joseph Mohr produced a poem, Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!. Due to poor health, he was sent to a Salzburg hospital and when he'd recovered, was assigned to St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf (1817).

It was there that he met and became friends with the Arnsdorf schoolmaster and church verger, Franz Xaver Gruber, organist at nearby St Nicholas'.

On 24 December 1818, Mohr showed Gruber his six-stanzas. He asked Gruber to write a melody and guitar arrangement. The following day, at Christmas Mass, while Mohr played his guitar, the two men sang Silent Night for the first time. St Nicholas' choir repeated the last two lines of each verse.

In 1819, Fr Mohr was transferred from Oberndorf and somewhere between that time and 1821 he set down his own an arrangement; basis of the tranquil four-part carol in Bowers-Broadbent's 'model' Westminster version.

Before Mathias' concluding bracket we're treated to a blissfully serene part-song: a setting by British songwriter Michael Head (1900-1976); its text, the late Margaret Rose's three-verse, twelve-line ruralesque lullaby -- The little road to Bethlehem.

Listen -- Michael Head: The little road to Bethlehem
(track 15, 2:05-2:58) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

As Hyperion's publicists note -- this CD encompasses ... 'diverse themes of Christmas which have inspired composers across the ages / light shining in darkness; the tenderness of mother and child; the fulfillment of promise; and the warm merriment of corporate celebration.'

It should serve as a fine antidote to unwanted morning after-effects caused by excessive warm merriment. It may also help nullify damage brought about by the inescapable hurry, flurry and clamour of Christmas which most of us stoically endure.

Copyright © 2 December 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand






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