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Recorded in the glorious acoustic of Keble College Chapel in Oxford, this imaginative programme includes several new commissions as well as a healthy dose of traditional Christmas fare.
Yet the connotations of Advent and Christmas, which stem from a story of unbridled joy, are more complex than they might at first seem: the Immaculate Conception, the spontaneous appearance of angels, the pregnancy of the Virgin brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Messiah in a stable among oxen can easily perplex and overwhelm. Furthermore, the winter months bring with them cold, dark days, and the exclusive nature of many celebrations at this time of year, by definition, establishes ‘outsiders’.
These diverse, multifaceted interpretations of Advent and Christmas are explored throughout Now may we singen. With works by composers of different generations, backgrounds and musical legacies, Christmas as both ancient holy day and modern, ever-evolving holiday is embraced by Timothy Garrard (director), Ben Bloor (organ) and the Choir of Westminster School through bold, characterful musical interpretations.
The collection’s opening carol, Matthew Martin’s Novo profusi gaudio (‘News of great joy’), heralds the Christmas season with a bang. A motet which draws upon medieval texts in English, Latin and French, it captures the excitement of the Nativity story from the first exuberant declamation of the refrain at the beginning of the piece to the final statement of it at the end. Hemiolas and syncopated rhythms drive the music forward, while extended chromatic harmonies give it an otherworldly dimension. It is fitting that this work was recorded in Keble College Chapel, Oxford, where Matthew Martin is currently Director of Music, and that Ben Bloor, Matthew’s successor at the Brompton Oratory, is the organist for this disc. Ben responds imaginatively to the subtle changes in character throughout the piece, enjoying the wealth of timbres offered by Keble’s fine Tickell-Ruffatti organ.
Rhythmically energised refrains feature in others’ carols in this collection, such as John Rutter’s The King of Blis and my Alleluia! A new work is come on hand. The former, a 15th-century text by James Ryman, conjures up the angel’s triumphant announcement through syncopated, fanfare-like major scales and cross rhythms, while mystical, dissonant harmonies describe the rare gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The latter carol celebrates the arrival of the Saviour who has come to 'save the lost of ev’ry land', a mood captured beautifully by Timothy Garrard, who inspires energised diction and articulation, and a sense of playfulness with the dramatic dynamic and textural changes. In this work I hark back to the origins of the anonymous medieval English text through the use of modality, dance-like dotted rhythms, and a compound time signature.
Not only joyful song, but also alcohol, features in the festivities following the announcement of the arrival of the Saviour in William Mathias’ work, Sir Christèmas. The upbeat tempo, exuberant hemiolas and triumphant shouts of 'Nowell' bring the celebratory scene vividly to life, boldly reminding us that 'the carol form has its origins in … dance' (Geraint Lewis).
Following the Choir of Westminster School’s rousing rendition of this traditional British carol, Westminster School alumnus Alexander Campkin’s Sleep, holy babe provides a welcome moment of intimacy and calm. A lullaby sung by Mary to her Jesus, it draws upon flowing, lyrical lines, rich harmonies, and immersive textures. This is further enhanced by the sensitive musical phrasing and enjoyment of subtle chromatic shifts achieved by the choir under the directorship of Timothy Garrard.
A commissioned work for this album, Richard Allain’s Lullay, myn lyking, taken from a 15th-century English poem, also depicts a lullaby sung by the Virgin to her new-born baby. With its triple-time lilt and repeated opening refrain, as well as the choir’s beautifully controlled phrasing, it is difficult to resist being drawn into the carol’s relaxing, mesmerising sound world. Richard Allain dedicated this work to his mother, who attended the first performance at the Westminster School Carol Service 2017 in Westminster Abbey on her 80th birthday.
A third lullaby, that of Mary’s Magnificat by Andrew Carter, features in this collection. Here the composer has adapted the Magnificat text from St Luke’s Gospel to emphasise the intimacy between Mary and Jesus. The Choir of Westminster School heightens the tenderness of this beautiful carol through their sensitive treatment of the ends of phrases, as well as the stunning timbre of their soaring soprano lines, which Ben Bloor cushions with the organ’s immersive strings.
After this sensual invitation to sleep, we are awoken with a start by John Tavener’s Ave rex angelorum. A fortissimo, tonally ambiguous, chromatic dialogue ensues between the choir and organ, with driving rhythms and rapidly changing rhythmic patterns creating a sense of chaos. The acoustic of Keble College Chapel, Oxford, rejoices in the boldness of this work, playing with the deafening extended organ harmonies and cries of 'Ave rex!', while adding mystery to the sustained tertiary harmonic progressions and the earth-trembling pedal notes.
Richard Wilberforce’s My musick shine is the second commissioned work on this album. Its text comes from the second of two poems entitled Christmas by George Herbert, another Westminster School alumnus, and, in Wilberforce’s own words, exquisitely balances 'poignant piety' and 'intimate self-contemplation'. Texture is imaginatively explored to emphasise the meaning of the text: the opening homophonic 'wistful melody that lilts with the natural spoken rhythm of the poem' gathers momentum through increasingly polyphonic lines until it reaches the 'intimate and personal creed that the choir softly affirms in unison: We sing one common Lord'. The shimmering sustained dissonances that thread throughout the work reiterate the deep spirituality of the words.
Like Wilberforce, Elizabeth Poston and Judith Weir play with the concept of musical texture as a symbol of religious, as well as musical, significance. Poston’s much-loved Jesus Christ the apple tree centres on the concept of God offering fruit, a metaphor for spiritual refreshment, to all. As the subject of the 18th-century poem becomes increasingly connected to God, so the texture develops, the opening monophonic stanza flowering firstly into rich upper-voice harmonies before becoming an SATB homophonic texture. The monophonic texture of the opening returns in the final stanza, this time with a sense of confidence and purpose unclouded by the harmony, representing the strengthened thriving soul mentioned in the text.
As Poston’s cyclical textures represent the subject becoming one with Christ as the poem progresses, so do Weir’s minimalist harmonies and thin texture at the opening of Drop down, ye heavens, from above represent the desperate longing of the prophets for their Messiah. These musical features abruptly alter when God passionately declares that His Son is coming: fortissimo, 8-part chords covering a large pitch range explode, highlighting the passionate, powerful nature of the Lord’s promise. Throughout this work, Weir also cleverly weaves in flowing plainsong-esque melodies.
Fervent longing for Christ is likewise a prominent sentiment in James MacMillan’s O radiant dawn. 'Come' is repeated again and again as an ascending sequence, with crescendo-ing dynamics and increasing suspensions emphasising the desperation of the people. The opening statement of 'O radiant dawn' incorporates MacMillan’s characteristic ornamented vocal lines, later echoed in the final cadence, and their resolution from dissonance to consonance here may be an intentional musical representation of the conflicts resolved by Jesus’ coming.
Between the Weir and the MacMillan, we find arguably the most iconic Christmas solo of all: the soprano solo first verse of Once in royal David’s city. An annual favourite at the Westminster School Carol Service in Westminster Abbey, it is performed stunningly on this disc. James O’Donnell’s arrangement of verse four for upper voices provides a welcome contrast from the traditional harmonisation, with the ringing homophonic accompaniment to the main tune at the beginning of the verse branching out into flowing polyphonic lines with some fun chromatic surprises.
Four other traditional congregational hymns feature throughout the disc. It came upon the midnight clear enjoys imaginative attention to the meaning of the text, both in the choir’s vocal timbres and in Ben Bloor’s organ accompaniment, and features a ringing descant in the final verse. In Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of O little town of Bethlehem, Timothy Garrard captures verse three’s 'How silently' beautifully, with an a cappella texture and piano dynamics. This provides a powerful contrast with Timothy’s descant line in the final verse, which creatively overlaps phrases with the main tune, achieving a flowing line through the use of multiple passing notes, and enjoying some characterful chromatic twists. Of course, Christmas would not be Christmas without the final two congregational hymns, Hark! The herald angels sing (with words by Westminster School alumnus Charles Wesley) and O come all ye faithful, the latter of which includes the rarely performed fourth verse, 'Yea, Lord, we greet thee', to be enjoyed on Christmas Day.
Timothy Garrard contrasts these Christmas classics brilliantly with modern works that challenge our understanding of the traditional carol and its composer (of the fourteen composers of carols on this album, all are living except Tavener, Poston and Mathias, and five are female). Two particularly unusual examples of this for me are Cecilia McDowall’s Now may we singen, from which this collection takes its name, and Roxanna Panufnik’s Jesus Christ is born. The former, a 15th-century English text with short Latin interjections, captures beautifully the playfulness of the words through ever-changing rhythmic groupings, bell-like drones, and quirky parallel fourths and fifths, brought to life here by the choir’s sparkling diction and energised articulation. Panufnik, on the other hand, juxtaposes functional harmony and periodic phrasing with angular organ melodies and syncopated rhythms in her traditional Polish carol. Timothy Garrard enhances the flurry of excitement in this piece through the characterful use of terraced dynamics.
In these ways, Now may we singen unites musical past, present and future in its exploration of the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Works of all genres and styles are brought to life by a group of highly committed, musically gifted Westminster School pupils under the baton of the imaginative, inspirational Timothy Garrard, with characterful organ accompaniments played by the talented Ben Bloor. Consequently, varied, even contradictory, interpretations of the birth of Jesus come together to form a rich tapestry of sound, a lively representation of the diversity of Christmas in the 21st century.
Ghislaine Reece-Trapp © 2019