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Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choristers, Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2012
Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: October 2013
Total duration: 77 minutes 23 seconds

An inspiring sequence of Christmas music ancient and modern, culminating in Britten’s virtuosic choral masterpiece, A boy was born. Paul McCreesh leads the Gabrieli Consort (joined by the Trebles of Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir) in this evocative and contrasting collection of festive works that samples works from the 12th century to the present day.


'Genuinely challenging and different … the Gabrieli's rapt and intense performance is remarkable in its poise and tonal control at mainly low dynamic levels … a wonderful Christmas offering' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

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Jeremy Summerly: This is a Christmas disc, there is no doubt about that—but it’s cast in an unusual mould. I can’t think of a less ‘commercial’ Christmas recording than this.

Paul McCreesh: That will come as no great surprise to those who know my musical tastes, I’m no Scrooge—on Christmas Eve, the turkey is stuffed, the tree is decked and at least a bottle or two are opened in the McCreesh household! Of course I understand that, for many, the traditional carols are an important part of the Christmas ritual. However, there is something quintessentially wonderful about the story of the Incarnation—verbum caro factum est, the son of God becoming man: it seems to me that the greatest Christmas music captures a sense of awestruck wonder at this miracle. I find it frustrating that so much of the repertoire has moved away from the central truth of this message, often becoming saccharine and sentimental—all tinsel and glitter, and very little else.

Jeremy Summerly: I find it particularly interesting that the programme you have devised moves straight from medieval repertoire to that of the 20th and 21st centuries. There is nothing renaissance, baroque, classical or romantic: you have indeed cut out much of the core Christmas repertoire!

Paul McCreesh: I think there is something that unites these seemingly disparate periods—certainly, all the music expresses beautifully a sense of wonder and simplicity. So much of the British carol repertoire draws heavily on the heritage of Tudor texts and imagery: Britten’s A Boy Was Born is clearly in this mould, setting poetry that is almost exclusively from the 15th and 16th centuries. This piece is not just the most substantial on the recording, but was also the starting point from which I built the programme. Britten’s new settings of old texts suggested the idea of combining new and old music—‘Carols Ancient and Modern’, if you will. From there a programme started to emerge. It is perhaps slightly unusual for a conductor to place such emphasis on text, but it is the natural starting point for any composer of choral music and for me it’s an equally instinctive way to begin programming.

Jeremy Summerly: I think the inspired part of this programme is that the repertoire is all interesting and very different, yet it is linked in this one essential way, by the texts.

Paul McCreesh: The programme also follows an intrinsic progression; there is a strong connection between the pieces as we move inevitably through prophecy, to the crib scene and the meetings of the shepherds and kings. Across the different centuries, composers of course paint these scenes in very different colours, but nevertheless they often reflect the same emotional world. In fact, all Gabrieli’s recent a cappella recordings tend to explore the connection between the vocal repertoire of today and that of earlier centuries. The great canon of music inspired by the religious tradition has, at its core, an essence of emotion that unites all humans of any time; it transcends the centuries in a quite extraordinary way.

I should add that I’m always very concerned that these programmes should have a carefully designed shape and musical logic. The richness of 20th and 21st century English choral music, with its beautifully written polyphony and often richly astringent harmony, sometimes needs a ‘palette cleanser’. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the medieval music here—beautiful and worthwhile in its own right—only serves that function, but it does provide necessary relief before the next onslaught of glorious lush harmony.

Jeremy Summerly: There are five loosely ‘medieval’ works here. People can have a very fixed idea about how this music should sound, but equally performers make very varied choices because there is so much that is unknown about performance practice of the period. How do you approach this music?

Paul McCreesh: The early repertoire here is very simple, almost entirely monophonic. I’ve chosen music which would probably have been performed in a domestic setting, or possibly in small chapels. This more intimate music—chants, lullabies and crib songs—precedes the elaborate liturgical repertoire of the late medieval and renaissance periods. The wonderful monodic lullaby Lullay, lullay or the Epiphany carol Thys Endere Nyghth have a haunting, almost hypnotic simplicity. In these performances they are distilled down to their barest components. Nothing is added to the notes on the page, no particular expression or emotion is sought, save the delivery of the text. The beauty for me is in the simple rise and fall of unadorned melody and the old English, sung by a single singer or by unison voices. I have never understood the necessity of adding drones, percussion and improvised ‘world music’ elements to this repertoire, much as nowadays it seems to be de rigeur all too often.

Jeremy Summerly: You are passionate about using ‘authentic’ pronunciation.

Paul McCreesh: I’m not sure passionate is quite the word! Nevertheless, to find an intelligent way through the huge spectrum of the musical canon, and to gain an understanding of the continuum that runs through it, it is essential to allow each particular kind of music to have its own colour. For me, the natural way to approach this is from a historical perspective (no surprise there!) and I think this has to include language too. I can’t see why this should be regarded as unexpressive or academic: for me, pronunciation is an intrinsic part of the historical sound-world. As you might expect of someone who has recorded Berlioz in French Latin, I think it would be a pity to hear medieval song performed in modern English. There is of course the valid argument that modern pronunciation aids communication, but to me it compromises the beauty of the unique sound-world. In any case, a few footnotes quickly explain the idiosyncrasies of the older language.

Jeremy Summerly: I’m interested to know what drove your choice of medieval works.

Paul McCreesh: I am no medievalist and my knowledge of this repertoire is extremely slim. I can say with honesty that I went no further than the New Oxford Book of Carols—this extraordinary collection of ‘original’ carols of so many periods, put together by Hugh Keyte, Andrew Parrott and Clifford Bartlett. Sadly, 20 years after its publication, much of the music therein is still rarely heard, especially the very early pieces. That’s partly because choirs want to perform choral music, of course, and so much of the medieval repertoire is solo or consort music, but there is much wonderful music here. So I was happy to choose from this erudite collection, with grateful acknowledgement to the editors. I hope that we might encourage more people to delve into this extraordinary resource which, for me, is the perfect counter-balance to the tired, hackneyed favourites.

Jeremy Summerly: The three 20th century composers here—Howells, Leighton and Britten—weren’t exact contemporaries, but they are certainly a triumvirate representing the English choral tradition. You’ll find their works on any Anglican Cathedral music list.

Paul McCreesh: Indeed, and yet all three had an uneasy relationship with religion. Take Howells, for instance, whose canticles are some of the most well-crafted pieces of liturgical music; yet I feel that the greatest Howells tends to be found in his settings of more demanding texts, such as Take him earth for cherishing, or his Requiem. Long, long ago is not so well known, but it is a brilliant illustration of Howells’ subtle response to expressive words. The poem, written by John Buxton in 1940 in a Prisoner of War camp, responds to the idea of Christ the Peace-Bringer, a theme which Howells had earlier explored in the last of his Three Carol-Anthems, written during the First World War.

There is also much wonderful Christmas music by Leighton—music of evident sincerity and great beauty, often set for solo soprano and choir—and I particularly liked A Hymn of the Nativity. There is something in the tenderness of Leighton’s response to the text—a very long and convoluted 17th century dialogue between two shepherds from which he selected specific verses—that obviously touches the romantic in me.

Jeremy Summerly: In addition to the 20th century repertoire you have chosen three works from this century. Is it difficult to select contemporary music to stand alongside acclaimed masterpieces of earlier periods?

Paul McCreesh: Perhaps it is, but these are unashamedly personal choices; I would justify them only by saying that all three works speak to me and move me. In putting these programmes together, I go through an agonizing process of listening to probably 200-plus pieces and select just 10. It drives my choral manager to drink because I am obsessed with finding well-written music that is serious and connects in a deep way. Needless to say, calypso versions of Ding Dong Merrily on High get dismissed before the end of the first verse…However, despite huge amounts of research and time, there is a certain element of chance to it.

I’ll let you into a secret – the opening track of this recording, Matthew Martin’s Adam lay ybounden was added to this programme only a few days before the first rehearsals. I had just discovered it and, on first listening, this young composer’s setting of a familiar text knocked me sideways! It is beautiful, exquisitely written music that somehow completely encapsulates the emotional world of the poetry. So although we had a fully formed programme I just had to include it, announcing to our audience that they would have to accept us performing an encore at the start of the programme!

Jeremy Summerly: Francis Pott’s Balulalow is the newest piece on the recording, written in 2009 and cast, like Leighton’s work, in the recognised frame of soprano solo and choir.

Paul McCreesh: This is another text that has been set many, many times, but I felt that Pott captured the sweetness of the text without sentimentality: a very difficult path to tread…especially at Christmas time. I love the fact that this composer writes real polyphony. There is a reason that Mozart, Handel, Bruckner, Mahler—indeed all the ‘greats’ studied polyphony: it is the essence of all western music. Pott doesn’t write misty ‘mood-music’, however fashionable that seems to be amongst choral composers today. His writing is not particularly difficult—it’s largely tonal—but it is incredibly well crafted.

Jeremy Summerly: Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings was written in 2000 and is also beautifully written. The title suggests a very traditional carol, but his choice of a text by Dorothy L. Sayers completely contradicts any pre-suppositions one might have!

Paul McCreesh: Yes, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas, isn’t it? The Epiphany story seen through the prism of the three ages of man. Perhaps it’s just a wonderful illustration of how the Christian tradition can be reflected and developed in such a vast variety of ways.

Jeremy Summerly: So is that what you are looking for—a new composer, able to set a very old text in a meaningful way that speaks to us now?

Paul McCreesh: I guess that’s most of it—there is something about the human voice and the choral sound that can encapsulate certain human emotions in the most sincere and natural way. A great piece of choral music should have the same emotional impact as a symphony, albeit on a smaller scale. I think it’s important that great choral music is heard in challenging programmes such as this. There is always the danger that it just becomes fodder for Evensong, or for quaint Victorian-style carol services. I think the repertoire deserves so much more than that. I dream of commissioning a truly ‘major’ a cappella work, one of significant duration; I am sure this would challenge many composers of choral music more used to writing short pieces. But maybe such a challenge might stimulate one of these wonderful composers to create something extraordinary?

Jeremy Summerly: The culmination of this programme is most certainly a ‘major a cappella work of significant duration’—Britten’s early masterpiece A Boy Was Born. It’s almost unbelievable that this extraordinary piece was written when he was still a student at the Royal College of Music.

Paul McCreesh: Yes…it is astonishing that any student—even a burgeoning genius such as Britten—should write a work such as this, arresting on so many levels. It is breathtakingly virtuosic, very challenging to sing and yet, crucially, never unvocal. It is also, at around half an hour, one of the longest a cappella works in the repertoire. It is both a compositional tour de force and, as so often with Britten, an exquisite response to a wide range of cleverly selected poetry.

Jeremy Summerly: Britten seems to have been aware of the audacity and ambition of the work. He’s young, he knows that he can’t do or know everything, he knows that he is pushing boundaries. Yet, at the same time, he grounds himself by writing a set of variations on a theme of four notes. It’s as if he’s well aware that whilst challenging every aspect of the idiom, this structural conceit will prevent him straying too far off course!

Paul McCreesh: Exactly so. It is extraordinary what he achieves with those four notes—not just breathtaking imagination but an ability to manipulate structural form that is so common amongst symphonic composers and yet relatively rare in choral music. Here Britten’s response to word settings is as refined and subtle as anywhere but, in adopting the symphonic form of theme and variations, he does something incredibly innovative.

Jeremy Summerly: The sound that you draw from the choir, and the way it has been recorded, is incredibly intimate and intense. Many recordings capture the choral sound from a distance, putting an aural halo around it, but it feels to me that you place the microphones relatively closely to the singers: you can feel the emotion in the singing, which you certainly don’t shy away from.

Paul McCreesh: I’m not so sure it’s just a matter of recording technique; I have long been obsessive about conveying text, and in particular I work hard to persuade the singers to place consonants very brightly at the front of the mouth. But I hope that this sense of increased emotional commitment is something of a hallmark of the Gabrieli sound—I’m certainly pleased that, as a choral conductor yourself, it’s something you immediately noticed. I constantly plead with my singers to think deeply about the words which they sing. I know that I challenge them as I have a different set of priorities from many other British conductors. Beauty of sound, clarity, precision—for me these are the starting points, not the whole raison d’être. Conveying feeling, moving the audience, drawing them in to the deeper meanings of text: these things mark out truly great singers and are equally applicable to choral and solo singing. I know I push my singers very hard and that they may not always feel loved, but they are an amazing group of hugely talented people and it’s an honour to work with them. It’s good to be able to put that on record!

Jeremy Summerly: So, let me review the record for you in advance. “Contrary, evangelical, but always sympathetic.” Are you happy with that?

Paul McCreesh: Well, maybe all three adjectives describe something of my personality and might not be entirely inappropriate, even on my tombstone! I think it is good to try to offer a different perspective and I believe that there should be a reason to commit more music to CD. Certainly, the music presented here is, of its kind, peerless, and it is for me to ensure that it is programmed and performed in a way that reflects, enhances and celebrates that. This is just one musician’s response to a most wonderful and profound story at the centre of the Christian tradition, one that has been at the heart of western culture for centuries. No more, no less.

Signum Classics © 2013

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