CHRISTMAS FROM WORCESTER: A TRIBUTE TO SIR DAVID WILLCOCKS
Worcester Cathedral Choir / Worcester Festival Choral Society / Sennet Brass / Christopher Allsop (organ) / Peter Nardone · Regent REGCD 486
‘We at Worcester Cathedral are proud to be associated with Sir David, and it is with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving that we offer this tribute to a great musician and leading light,’ writes Peter Nardone in the comprehensive notes to this excellent CD. Before he moved to King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, David Valentine Willcocks (DVW) was organist and master of the choristers at Worcester during the 1950s.
The CD opens with DVW’s well known arrangement of ‘O come, all ye faithful’, complete with its arresting brass fanfare. In all there are 23 familiar arrangements – the Sussex Carol, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day and Resonemus laudibus to name but three. The collection is a good reflection of the arrangements DVW wrote for OUP’s Carols for Choirs series. Casting one’s eye down the list, it’s a reminder how much DVW used medieval texts and melodies – for example, ‘Angelus ad virginem’, and ‘Ding dong, merrily on high’. There is a good variety, with choral arrangements sung by the Worcester Cathedral Choir. They are joined by the Worcester Festival Choral Society and Sennet Brass for the congregational carols such as ‘Once in royal David’s city’ and ‘Hark, the herald-angels sing’. The fuller sound in this great cathedral has been caught admirably, and the inclusion of brass adds up to a suitably festive feel to this musical tribute.
Though many of these splendid and familiar carol arrangements were written after his time at Worcester, the composer Jonathan Willcocks (also writing in the CD notes) considers that his father gained much musical experience and confidence there and that this was the bedrock of the Christmas musical experience for millions all round the world; two years after DVW’s death, how true that still is!
TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
The King’s Men · King’s College, Cambridge KGS0017
After Worcester and during his time at King’s, it is well known that Sir David Willcocks approved of his choral scholars singing in close harmony – as long as it was perfectly in tune! At one point in the 70s there were two groups each of which used to tour the country giving concerts in the holidays. Wind the clock forward to more recent years and King’s has invested in professional recording equipment, branding and marketing to produce a number of fine recordings in the hallowed space of the college chapel, which can be heard on the internet. By contrast but using the same majestic branding, the scholars have become ‘The King’s Men’ to bring this juxtaposition of both the sublime and the ridiculous. Recorded well away from the choir stalls, the religious and secular are combined on one disc. We are treated for example to The Angel Gabriel followed by All I want for Christmas is you. It’s quite striking to hear the words of Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa baby – hurry down the chimney tonight, the latter then followed by Away in a manger. ‘Bah Humbug!’ I faintly hear some cry, but hang on: this is good fun, with fine clear singing in a well recorded close microphone balance. The CD notes allude to the creation of a cosy fireside scene, a glass of sherry, a comfy armchair and a Christmas tree in the corner. This is worth hearing in addition to the broadcast Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. Pour yourself an extra glass. Happy Christmas!
CHRISTMAS FROM SELWYN
Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge / Shanna Hart and Ben Comeau (organ) / Sarah MacDonald · Regent REGCD 464
At this time of year, it is easy to forget that the city of Cambridge does have other college chapel choirs other than that of mighty Kings; others are available. This recording from Selwyn College Chapel Choir is a splendid collection of carols old and new. Richard Causton’s O my dear hert and Philip Stopford’s We three kings deserve special mention. We are also treated among other things to ‘Once in royal’ with verse one soloist, Mack Wilberg’s rather nifty setting of Ding dong, merrily, and Michael Head’s beautiful The Little Road to Bethlehem. All is going well, until we get to Track 6. A male voice rings out, ‘You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen’. Yes, dear reader, suddenly we are ripped from the Bethlehem road to the land of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. It comes as a bit of a jolt. Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with a mixture of sacred and profane, but, at the risk of being accused of being a stuffed shirt, I do wonder about the order of items. Elsewhere, Santa Claus is coming to town and White Christmas are sandwiched between O little town of Bethlehem and O come, all ye faithful. That said, there is some wonderful singing from this mixed choir of 30 singers. Choral singing in Selwyn is alive and well, and if this CD is anything to go by, there will be much seasonal merriment.
DROP DOWN YE HEAVENS: Advent Antiphons for choir and saxophone
Siglo de Oro / Sam Corkin (saxophones) / Patrick Allies · Delphian DCD34184
I love this CD recording; of all those selected for review this is perhaps the most distinctive. It sets perfectly the mood of anticipation and waiting that is so much a characteristic of the Advent season. To translate their Spanish name, this first commercial recording indeed represents a Golden Age for this choir of young British professional singers, who have commissioned some respected contemporary composers to set the ‘Great O’ Advent Antiphons for choir and saxophone. Of course it was the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek cornered this market in the 90s with saxophone improvisations over Renaissance works. Now with commissions from Will Todd, Francis Pott, Richard Allain and Ralph Allwood among others, Siglo de Oro has taken this particular genre a stage further. There are striking sonorities here – with some ingenious weaving of the familiar ‘Great O’ plainsong melody in a number of these works. The saxophone/choir timbre is broken up on this CD by the inclusion of Latin Renaissance settings of these antiphons from Pierre Certon, Praetorius and Josquin des Prez. All this is heralded by Judith Weir’s setting of the Advent Prose which uses the original plainsong melody. With some excellent and comprehensive notes from Michael Emery, this is a CD worth having.
AN EAST RIDING TREASURE
Robert Poyser plays the restored organ of Beverley Minster · Priory PRCD1181
It is good to have this fine CD of the restored organ of Beverley Minster. There are choruses of Snetzler from the 18th century, with most of the remainder of the instrument built by William Hill in the 19th century. The 20th century saw a thorough restoration and additions by Wood of Huddersfield. The organ in the vast acoustic of the Minster is captured well in these performances by Robert Poyser who has been Director of Music there since 2009. His varied programme begins with a flamboyant March in F by Lefébure-Wely which should bring a smile to listeners. This is followed by a Toccata by the 18th-century Italian composer, Zipoli which exploits some of the interesting reeds and cornet available on the instrument. This contrasts well with the gentle Prière et Berceuse by Guilmant. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor and his beautiful chorale prelude ‘When in the hour of utmost need’ from the Orgelbüchlein follow, and this in turn leads to Herbert Howells’s Psalm Prelude Set 2 no. 1 showing fine colours and dynamic variety. An exuberant performance of Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm is the centrepiece, well suited to the palette of colours available on this instrument, especially some delightful strings and quiet reeds. The disc ends with three attractive pieces by Nicholas Choveaux, culminating with his exciting Introduction and Toccata on the Easter hymn Lasst uns erfreuen so we can enjoy the solo tuba and rich pedal division of the instrument.
This is a good CD to serve as a reminder of a visit to one of the most magnificent churches in the UK and Robert Poyser plays a varied programme with aplomb and style. The recording captures the ambience of the Minster, and the performer knows his instrument thoroughly. It will appeal to the interested listener as well as the organ aficionado.
THE STORY OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS: The 2014 Service in Truro Cathedral (DVD); the 1880 reconstruction service (CD)
Truro Cathedral Choir / Luke Bond (organ) / Jeremy Summerly (presenter) / Christopher Gray · Regent Records (DVD + CD) REGDVD004
I have to confess that my heart fell on receiving the CD/DVD. Is there really any need for yet another recorded carol service, and one from three years ago? It is only a year since I reviewed a wonderful BBC/King’s College DVD. The answer is actually a resounding yes!
Several things make this package stand out. Firstly, the musical standard is very high indeed, a remarkable blend for a choir with a relatively small number on the top line. Secondly, there are two different carol services for your money with the DVD containing Truro’s 2014 Carol Service and the CD containing a reconstruction of Archbishop Benson’s very first ‘Nine Lessons’ of 1880. Thirdly, and not to be missed, a documentary about the genesis of this iconic service narrated by Jeremy Summerly. Many know that the service had its origin in Truro but I suspect not many realize that this was in a wooden shed, as the cathedral was yet to be built! Nowadays the service tends to build up through the Christmas story towards a climax of the ninth reading from St John’s Gospel, but originally Benson had in mind a tripartite structure – Man’s fall, the Nativity and a third section following the Gospel of John to explain the meaning of Christmas. He also included extracts from Handel’s Messiah and the Magnificat. Those who find that their ‘Nine lessons’ service is becoming a bit hackneyed, may find some ideas here to rejuvenate their service with some new (or rather old!) ideas.
Lastly a brief comment on the repertoire. The two carols from Stainer and Bramley’s Christmas Carols New and Old in the 1880 service will be very unfamiliar to modern ears. The rest of the ‘1880’ music is well known, although the absence of familiar descants makes for sober listening. The 2014 repertoire is more standard fare with familiar Willcocks descants. The seven choir carols are an eclectic mix by composers Darke, Stopford, Vaughan Williams, Marshall, Rutter and Nigel Short, with a first performance of the Salutation Carol by Russell Pascoe.
A minor quibble that I have mentioned in these columns before – why do producers so often fail to get the speech and video to lip-sync properly? It can’t be that difficult with all this modern technology.
This production would make a wonderful Christmas gift for many musical relatives – do try it.