What is particularly attractive about this new disc is that it avoids the usual selection of Christmas carols and, instead, brings us some of the finest sacred Christmas choral works from the 16th to the 20th century.
This new disc opens with William Byrd’s (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine (The sun rises) a plainsong hymn which transports us back over 400 years with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir providing some lovely individual voices in the various passages, building in texture and power before the end.
The Welsh composer William Mathias ((1934-1992) wrote much choral music, his Ave Rex – A Carol Sequence, Op.45 being one of the longer pieces on this disc.
Ave Rex (Hail King) opens with an organ flourish before the choristers sing a repeated Ave, Ave. The adult voices and organ continue in this thoroughly contemporary yet strikingly attractive setting before all the choir come together blending beautifully in Mathias’ harmonies.
The choir rise up beautifully in the joyful Alleluya A new work is come on hand with many little subtleties and some terrific weaving and overlaying of texts. The choristers open There is no rose of such virtue against a hushed organ chord before the adult voices take over. After the choristers return the whole choir then leads on with a beautiful flow and texture, so exquisitely gentle. The music rises up passionately before calming with a solo treble and choir leading to a very fine coda.
Staccato organ chords open Sir Christèmas before the choir sound out in this joyful concluding section. There is a central organ section before the choir rejoin bringing some exceptionally fine, powerful singing.
We go right back to the 16th century with John Taverner’s (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima (Mother of Christ most holy). How this choir seem to excel in such diverse repertoire. Here they bring a transparency and brilliance to this fine piece, an antiphon on which the composer built his Mass of the same name; some absolutely splendid weaving of contrapuntal lines before rising to a final amen.
This recording continues with three more pieces by William Byrd, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), a fast flowing celebratory motet with this choir in full flow. Byrd’s O magnum misterium (Oh Great mystery) is a more measured setting, as befits the text, with some beautifully controlled singing. Puer natus est nobis (For is born to us) brings more of Byrd’s weaving of contrapuntal lines superbly handled by this choir.
John Sheppard (c.1515-c.1559) is still much undervalued yet he surely deserves to be recognised as one of the finest of 16th century English composers. Here his Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria (Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice Mary) provides a substantial example of just how fine he was. Stephen Darlington paces the choir perfectly with Sheppard’s rather melancholic setting sounding so fine. There is a lovely restraint in the slower, reflective passages and beautifully soaring passages elsewhere, bringing out Sheppard’s little harmonies and with some fine individual groups of voices.
Returning to the 20th century we come to Francis Poulenc (1889-1963). He wrote many very fine choral works of which Salve Regina (Hail Queen) is a fine example with this choir finding much beauty in the composer’s lovely harmonies.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s (c. 1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni à 6) is built on a plainchant melody that opens this work. Soon Palestrina’s genius suddenly allows the music to soar and what a sound the choir produces. They are magnificent. in this fine work with some lovely individual contributions including a fine treble. This is a particularly fine performance full of power, control, lovely weaving of musical lines and a glorious Amen.
The Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751) is not a name that will be known to many. He has a link to Palestrina in that he studied in Rome with Ottavio Pitoni (1657-1743) a disciple of Palestrina and the writer of some 3,000 masses, psalms and hymns in the contrapuntal style of the earlier composer.
Esteves’ Beata Dei Genitrix (Mother of God) has a lovely swaying gait to it before it pushes ahead rhythmically. There is an odd little middle section for a smaller group of voices before the choir all join to lead to the coda.
Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh) has a gentle opening before Esteves pushes the music forward, again with a central section for a small group of soloists, very finely sung here. The choir rejoin and move forward but Esteves includes another section for the small vocal group before the choir lead to the fine coda.
There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and here is one of the finest we have. There are informative notes by Stephen Darlington but no texts. With singing as fine as this it hardly matters. This should be at the top of your Christmas music list.