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Advent eventually came to reflect on Christ’s adventus in three ways. First, it looked forward to Christmas, to his birth in Bethlehem and into human history. Secondly, it reflected on the transformations in a life or community when Christ is ‘born’ in the heart and mind through a deepening trust in him. Lastly, it glanced ahead to the day when Christ, in the words of the fourth-century Nicene creed, will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.
What we find as the centuries develop this tradition of Advent, is a deep sense of longing in the prayers and music. It becomes a season in the vocative, calling out to God to come and save us from ourselves and our propensity to injure the world and each other. You can hear this restless longing to be made complete in what are known as the ‘Great Os’, the Magnificat antiphons for the last seven days of Advent, each beginning with the vocative particle ‘O’ and invoking Christ, with various biblical images, to come and make us whole again. At the heart of Advent is the belief that the human soul can only be healed from outside itself, by being visited, loved and held. We are touched back into life, as it were, and so the season is inspirited with music and words that reach out for that touch from the one who is believed to know us better than ourselves, our creator.
As well as in the antiphons, you can hear both the hopeful urgency and attention that lie in the Advent longing in Philip Doddridge’s Hark, the glad sound and Johann Helbig’s Ach so, a prayer that we may both find and be found. It is there too in Charles Wesley’s popular hymn Lo! he comes, and in the much earlier hymn Vox clara (‘a ringing voice thunders out, rattling every dark thing’). The extraordinary little medieval poem Deo gracias even suggests that it was worth Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, and all the ensuing human hurt, if it means that God will now hold his hand out to us again in Christ and draw us close in a relationship renewed through forgiveness.
The Sundays of Advent each concentrate on figures in the biblical narrative whose faithful lives were energised by expectancy. The first two weeks study the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and the second are immersed in the lives of John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Christ. We can hear the part John plays in pointing people to the Christ who is on his way in A prayer to St John the Baptist in which he is addressed as ‘desert-dweller, knowing the solitudes that lie beyond anxiety and doubt’.
The relationship between Mary and her child is often described with poetic metaphors drawn from the natural budding world, with hints of Spring, in a spiritual season that is kept through the darkest weeks of the year. The elegant texts of A tender shoot, The linden tree, Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen and A Spotless Rose, and the beautiful There is no rose (whose Latin words put together say ‘marvellous thing, of equal form, let us rejoice’) all reveal a tender coming to birth that awakens and freshens the world. The traditional prayer Rejoice, O Virgin Mother reveals the joy that lies in the desire for God to become incarnate amongst us. Likewise, the evocation of light, at the edge of dawn, is found in the Legend of St Christopher in I am the day where the monosyllabic repetition, like a hammer at a wall, of ‘I am the day soon to be born’ celebrates Christ as the light breaking in and diminishing darkness.
Advent is an unapologetically poetic season of the Church. Its words struggle to contain something of the hope and reach of the Christian faith that, at the same time, lives with the confusions and distress of the world and our trying to live a life of worth in it. It is full of yearning, honest incompleteness and self-scrutiny, seeing who we are and what we need. It observes, in the words of von Eichendorff’s Einklang the ‘misplaced industriousness, vanity, which bring nobody solace but distract the heart by day’. Set aside each year, it is a time when we call out in the hope that the divine life might come and water a parched humanity. The poignancy of this desire makes Advent both a perennial and resonant season of the spirit.
The Rev’d Canon Mark Oakley
(Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge)
Approaching Wonder: Celebrating Advent through Music
Advent is generally regarded as a time of waiting and preparation. It is also the period during which Christians, infused with a sense of quiet awe, look forward to the joys of Christmas. The librettist of Bach’s cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV62, recognised this, juxtaposing an opening chorus based on the Lutheran chorale ‘Nun komm’ (Come now, Saviour of the Gentiles) with an aria entitled ‘Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis’ (marvel, mankind, at this great mystery). Jonathan Dove’s I am the day (1999), the opening track of this Advent compilation, captures these contrasting qualities perfectly. A short opening passage, to be sung ‘with mystery’, alternates with a dance-like section. Later, fragments of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ surface in the upper voices but refuse to coalesce. As Paul Spicer put it, the Advent hymn functions like a folksong that, learned in the cradle, nonetheless ‘refuses to yield itself fully’. The words of the anthem, a commission from the Spitalfields Festival (of which Dove was Artistic Director from 2001 to 2005), are taken from the Legend of St Christopher and Revelation Chapter 22. Rather than present the texts sequentially, Dove combines fragments in a manner suggestive of mantras. The music, like the words, is highly repetitive; indeed, the anthem’s almost trance-like effect has led some commentators to invoke the concept of minimalism, an approach that Dove has embraced in other works.
Arvo Pärt’s Bŏgŏroditsye Dyevo also makes extensive use of repetition, despite being one of the shortest settings of the text better known as the Ave Maria. (The version heard here is a Church Slavonic translation taken from the Orthodox Book of Prayers.) It is also the shortest work that Pärt published. The piece was commissioned by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and it was first performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on 24th December 1990. Rumour has it that Pärt charged per minute and that Cleobury decided to limit the College’s expenditure by requesting a one-minute setting—a bold decision, given Pärt’s liking for slow, quasi-mystical writing. In its use of parallel chords, Bŏgŏroditsye Dyevo draws on the musical traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, which Pärt joined in the early 1970s. However, the setting is hardly typical of what has come to be known as the Holy Minimalist School, as it is unusually energetic, even driven. In the latter stages music almost gives way to speech, with rhythm the only functioning parameter.
Herbert Howells’s setting of the anonymous fourteenth-century Marian text A Spotless Rose dates from 1919. It was one of three ‘carol-anthems’ which, together, represent the composer’s first significant contribution to sacred music. (Most of Howells’s church music was composed after World War II, prompted perhaps by his wartime experience as Acting Organist of St John’s.) Howells claimed that A Spotless Rose came to him as he watched trains being shunted on the Gloucester to Bristol line. That might seem an improbable source of inspiration, but the composer once wrote ‘I think polyphonically, in lines’, so the connection is perhaps not so outlandish. While this setting is composed largely in homophony, Howells’s awareness of individual lines is always apparent, nowhere more so than in the baritone solo part, which is crafted with remarkable elegance. The text is in two verses, but Howells creates a ternary form by repeating the baritone’s words in a version for full choir. Patrick Hadley, a fellow Cambridge composer, described the final bars as ‘a stroke of genius’, adding ‘I should like, when my time comes, to pass away with that magical cadence’. Many will doubtless have shared this thought.
Cecilia McDowall’s A prayer to St John the Baptist was written for the Choir of St John’s and premiered at the 2018 Advent Carol Service. The work is based on a hymn, Ut queant laxis, that is traditionally ascribed to the eighth-century historian Paulus Diaconus and is usually sung on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The words are built round a mnemonic. The first line starts with ‘ut’, the second with ‘re’ etc. Together, the opening syllables plus the initials of ‘Sancte Iohannes’ spell out the sequence ut – re – mi – fa – sol – la – si, the letter-names assigned in medieval theory to the scale. (In the associated chant, attributed to Guido d’Arezzo, each phrase starts one note higher, reinforcing the hymn’s educative role.) McDowall interweaves the ancient text with words by Thomas Merton, a twentieth-century Trappist monk who at one time studied at Clare College, Cambridge. The music begins and ends on the note A, which is sustained throughout the piece, mostly in the bass of the organ. Around the held A the organist’s right hand spins a lively dance—sometimes fluent, sometimes syncopated. According to the composer, this represents Merton’s baptismal ‘rivers of water’. The piece is based for the most part on octatonic scales; the combination of this, the tonality of A major, treble-dominated textures and an incantatory effect springing from repetition creates distant echoes of Messaien’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine.
Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara ecce intonat was commissioned for the Choir of St John’s and first performed at the 2013 Advent Carol Service with saxophonist Joel Garthwaite. Jackson, a former chorister of Canterbury Cathedral and one-time Associate Composer to the BBC Singers, identifies sixteenth-century sacred music as the most important influence on his style. However, he has also acknowledged the pivotal role played by the music of Michael Tippett (‘the greatest English composer since Purcell’) and the genres of soul and R&B in the development of his compositional voice, highlighting in R&B ‘the spaciousness, the ecstatic, bright sounds’ and the ‘incredible care in the way the chords are voiced’. Many of these qualities are evident in Vox clara: the choral parts move mostly in homophony, while an elaborate part for soprano saxophone soars above. The instrument’s arabesques, with their occasional hints of birdsong, surely reflect the composer’s interest in flight, a preoccupation in many of his works. The alto solo of the contrasting middle section, though slower, is also rapt in character. Jackson’s text is taken from a sixth-century Latin hymn associated with Advent, best known in Edward Caswall’s nineteenth-century translation as Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.
John McCabe was an unusually versatile musician, but is remembered principally for a dual career as composer and pianist. As a keyboard player he was particularly noted for championing Haydn; as a composer he worked across many genres, but showed particular affinities with the symphony and the concerto, of which he left over twenty examples. Most of his choral music dates from the earlier part of his career, but The last and greatest Herald was a late work written as a commission for the 2008 Advent service at St John’s. The text, by the poet William Drummond, dubbed the ‘Scottish Petrarch’, takes the form of a sonnet. However, McCabe largely disregards the poet’s division into octet and sestet and, taking his lead from the use of the word ‘repent’ in both parts of the poem, creates the impression of a loose ternary form. The fanfare passages, which reflect John’s role as herald of Christ’s coming, are performed here on the organ’s celebrated Trompeta Real, a reed stop that requires especially high wind pressure.
The Advent Antiphons were traditionally sung or recited on either side of the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days leading up to Christmas. They are sometimes called the ‘Great Os’, as all seven texts begin with the acclamation ‘O’. Each addresses Christ, but focuses on Christ’s attributes rather than his person or deeds. Thus, the four antiphons recorded here are directed to Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse and Clavis David (Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David). Taken together, and read backwards, the first letters of the seven principal nouns form an acrostic that spells out ‘ero cras’—Latin for ‘I shall be [with you] tomorrow’. However, authoritative voices have argued that this Advent message was never intended by the early Church. The texts have been set by composers as diverse as Charpentier, Arvo Pärt and Bob Chilcott. On this recording we hear the Gregorian chants traditionally associated with the words.
Otto Goldschmidt was born and grew up in Germany where he studied with, among others, Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. After a period of peregrination during which he married Jenny Lind, the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, he settled in London, becoming a leading light in the musical life of the capital. His background in Germany was reflected in tireless advocacy of the music of J S Bach; this culminated in the founding in 1875 of the Bach Choir with which Goldschmidt gave a number of pioneering performances, including the first complete performance in England of the B minor Mass. A tender shoot is the most famous of Goldschmidt’s shorter works. The text is a translation of one of the best-known Advent texts by William Bartholomew, a writer and composer who collaborated with Mendelssohn on Elijah and Hear my prayer. Hints of independent voice-leading within a basically homophonic texture and light chromatic colouring reveal the influence of Goldschmidt’s teacher Mendelssohn.
The setting of Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen recorded here is an extract of an extract. It is taken from the first of seven chorale variations that, together, form the backbone of Hugo Distler’s Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story), an extended work for unaccompanied choir and six solo voices. Distler described his sacred music as ‘volksnahe, kirchliche Gebrauchsmusik’—translated as ‘practical church music close to the needs of the people’—and, as is typical of the composer, he takes his lead from pre-Bachian repertoire, in particular, the works of Schütz which enjoyed a renaissance during the 1920s. Distler’s approach to language reveals a Baroque-inspired plasticity: individual voice-parts have different metrical signs, resulting at times in non-aligned bar-lines. Die Weihnachtsgeschichte was written in 1933, a baleful year for the composer. His career as church musician was blighted by threats from the Nazis, including a narrowly averted denunciation in 1938 as a ‘degenerate’ artist. Weighed down by worries—in particular, the fear that he might be recruited into military service—and finding his work hampered by Hitler Youth meetings timed to coincide with rehearsals, Distler committed suicide in 1942, aged only 34.
A devout Roman Catholic, Anthony Milner once described his music as ‘part of the great act of praise which we should all be giving’. Milner produced a large number of compositions that, like Hindemith’s, might be said to have a social purpose. Out of your sleep, a setting of a fourteenth-century text, was written in 1959, during a period when Milner lectured at Morley College, an institution closely associated with social engagement. (Michael Tippett, a great influence on Milner, conducted an orchestra of unemployed musicians there before taking up the post of Director.) Out of your sleep epitomises Milner’s musical education. It is highly contrapuntal, reflecting the training he received from R O Morris, one of the great twentieth-century teachers of counterpoint. It also has more than a hint of the dance—a reflection perhaps of the private lessons Milner took with Mátyás Seiber, whose music often combines rigorous technical procedures with jazz-inflected idioms. Most notably, however, it is tuneful. This is perhaps unsurprising: in an essay for The Musical Times, Milner decried the complexities of recent compositions, concluding that melody must be ‘the primary constituent of music’.
Judith Bingham, like Gabriel Jackson, served for a period as Associate Composer to the BBC Singers. An Introduction to Hark, the glad sound was commissioned for the Choir of St John’s for the 2019 Advent Carol Service and, like Jackson’s Vox clara, it features a prominent role for solo soprano saxophone, taken here by St John’s undergraduate Ignacio Mañá Mesas. The saxophone soloist is directed to begin playing ‘offstage’, arriving ‘onstage’ in the middle of Bingham’s Introduction. A sense of coming, the central concept of Advent, is paralleled in the choral parts, which begin quietly but build up in preparation for the entry of the organ and, ultimately, the congregation. According to a handwritten note by its author Philip Doddridge, the stirring hymn-text dates from December 1735. Originally in seven stanzas and entitled ‘Christ’s Message’, it was first published after the poet’s death. (As a Nonconformist minister, Doddridge would have had no need for hymn-books, instead teaching his congregations the words by call and response.) The text is sung to Bristol, a hymn-tune whose melody and bass derive from Thomas Ravenscroft’s 1621 setting of Psalm 64. Curiously, in Ravenscroft’s original, found in The Whole Booke of Psalmes, the melody appears in the tenor rather than the treble.
Over the course of a long career, Elizabeth Maconchy was gradually recognised as one of the most significant composers of her generation, a trajectory confirmed by a CBE in 1977 and a DBE in 1987. She studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and like the latter was active in a wide range of genres: her work-list includes operas, symphonies, concertos and no fewer than thirteen string quartets. However, Maconchy’s music was more modernist in style than that of her teachers, a trend encouraged no doubt by extended visits to Central Europe in her youth. In fact, one of the most influential figures in her development was Bartók, a composer virtually unknown at the time in Britain. Though choral music played a relatively small role during much of Maconchy’s career, she wrote a significant number of pieces in later years. There is no rose, which dates from 1983, was one of her final compositions. Maconchy wrote that ‘for me the best music is an impassioned argument … The rigid self-discipline which the composer must impose on himself must always be directed to the fullest expression of the underlying emotion and never to its exclusion’—sentiments easily discerned here.
Georg Philipp Telemann’s ‘Ach so laß von mir dich finden’ is taken from a cycle of 144 sacred songs published in 1727. The cycle draws on material that the composer had used the previous year in Hamburg church services, normally immediately before the sermon. The original versions were scored for voice, solo instrument or instruments and continuo. In reworking them Telemann eliminated melody instruments, distributing their material between the voice and an enhanced bass part—modifications so skilfully executed that no-one would suspect a repurposing. In a preface, Telemann emphasised the possibility of using his new collection in domestic settings, highlighting the use of flowing vocal lines ‘without excessive or unnatural leaps’, attributes exemplified in ‘Ach so laß’. The aria, intended for the third Sunday in Advent, is, like all its peers, cast in a conventional ternary form, with straightforward periodic phrasing that reflects the regular metrical structure of Johann Friedrich Helbig’s text. On this recording, the trebles of the Choir are joined by solo archlute.
According to his obituary in The Times, Paul Manz, who died in 2009 at the age of 90, ‘enriched the world of sacred music in a wide variety of ways’. He was a noted organist, teacher, lecturer, conductor and scholar, as well as composer. E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come (1953) is probably the most frequently performed of his compositions; it is estimated that over one million copies have been sold. The text, which was adapted by Manz and his wife Ruth from Revelation Chapter 22 in response to a serious illness suffered by their three-year-old son, is set in modified strophic form, suggesting the genre of hymn-anthem. The principal theme, which frequently appears in imitation, echoes phrases from Lutheran chorales—most suggestively, the opening line of ‘Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten’. This is unsurprising given Manz’s abiding interest in Bach. The anthem begins in B flat minor, but turns at the end to D flat major—surely reflecting the move from darkness to light celebrated in the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
No December would be complete without the work of George Ratcliffe Woodward, sometime scholar of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He wrote and arranged the texts of several popular carols—most famously, Ding, dong, merrily on high. The linden tree carol combines one of Woodward’s less familiar translations with an old German melody arranged by Reginald Jacques, conductor of London’s Bach Choir from 1931 until 1960 and editor, with Sir David Willcocks, of the first volume (1961) of the popular Carols for Choirs series. The composition has alternating verses in four- and three-part harmony; in the three-part settings, the melody is transferred to the tenor. Jacques’s harmonisation hints at Renaissance practices, with particularly obvious references to the Mixolydian mode in the three-part verses.
We owe one of Benjamin Britten’s most popular works to an over-zealous customs official. In early 1942 Britten and Peter Pears decided to return to England after almost three years in America, and as they boarded the cargo-ship that took them home, the manuscripts of two works-in-progress, the Hymn to St Cecilia and a piece for Benny Goodman, were confiscated on the grounds that the musical notation might contain secret codes. While on board, Britten reconstructed the Hymn, but he also started work on Gerald Bullett’s The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, a volume picked up during a stopover in Nova Scotia. Five poems from the collection provided the core of what became A Ceremony of Carols. In the months that followed, the work went through several incarnations, but it was premiered in its final, eleven-movement form in London in December 1943. Britten originally conceived the piece for female voices—not boys’ choir, as appears on the published score. Nowadays, however, the work is also frequently performed in the 1955 version for SATB by Julius Harrison. ‘Deo gracias’ sets the well-known fifteenth-century text ‘Adam lay ibounden’, wreathing it with repeated cries of ‘Thanks be to God’. The movement starts in the minor, but ends with ecstatic exchanges in the major, set against a backdrop of harp glissandi. Peter Pears described A Ceremony of Carols as ‘very sweet and chockfull of charm’—a perfect summary of ‘Deo gracias’, the penultimate movement.
‘Einklang’ is the second of Hugo Wolf’s Six sacred songs for unaccompanied choir. All six are based on texts by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, the quintessential poet of early German Romanticism, and all were given new titles by Wolf to suggest a cycle based on night-time reflection. The songs were written in 1881 in response to the break-up of Wolf’s relationship with Vally Franck, his first great love. ‘Einklang’, originally entitled ‘Nachtgruß’ (Night Greeting), addresses one of Eichendorff’s recurrent themes, the search for inner peace. It bears comparison with another Eichendorff text, ‘Abschied vom Wald’, set most famously by Mendelssohn: both poems talk of retreating from the deceptions of a busy world, in one case into nature, here into the peace that only ‘another King’ can bring. The title ‘Einklang’, usually translated as ‘harmony’, is particularly apposite, as both words and music are infused with a deep sense of repose; what’s more, the text is set almost entirely in four-part harmony. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the date of composition—Wolf had just entered his twenties—the style is relatively traditional, with each of the three stanzas ending unambiguously in the home key. That said, there are frequent harmonic side-steps and unorthodox voicings that hint at the advanced chromatic language of Wolf’s more mature compositions.
In the Anglican Hymnology of 1885 James King revealed that, in terms of popularity, Lo! he comes with clouds descending was one of the ‘Great Four’ hymns of the Anglican Communion. (The others were All praise to thee, my God, this night; Hark! The herald angels sing; and Rock of ages.) Both words and music are eighteenth-century in origin. The text, inspired by Revelation Chapter 1, is usually ascribed to Charles Wesley. However, Wesley’s 1758 version is a reworking of Lo! He cometh, countless trumpets, published by John Cennick in his Collection of Sacred Hymns (1752). Nowadays, the words are almost invariably coupled with the tune Helmsley; in fact, Queen Victoria expressed herself far from amused when a different tune was used in 1901 at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The descant on this recording is by Christopher Robinson, Director of Music at St John’s from 1991 to 2003.
Our programme concludes with one of J S Bach’s finest chorale preludes, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, BWV661. Bach wrote no fewer than seven works based on this chorale—two cantatas and five organ pieces. BWV661 is taken from the collection sometimes called the ‘Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes’. These were put together by Bach towards the end of his life, most likely as part of the task of ordering his musical legacy. Usually associated with the first Sunday of Advent, ‘Nun komm’, like several other hymns by Luther, is a close adaptation of a Latin original—in this case, Veni redemptor gentium (Come, saviour of the peoples), an eight-stanza poem by Ambrosius of Milan. The associated melody is based on Gregorian chant and is first found in something close to its Lutheran form in a twelfth-century hymnal. The chorale prelude is set for ‘organo pleno’—literally, full organ—and features the tune in long note-values in the pedals. Bach, ever keen to synthesise genres, creates an amalgam of chorale prelude and fugue, with each phrase of the chorale anticipated by an imitative passage for manuals only. The first of these is laid out as a fairly orthodox fugal exposition, and the subject of the fugue, a bustling theme in continuous quavers not unrelated to the chorale melody, is adapted as needed to suit each of the chorale’s subsequent phrases. It is tempting to see in the busy textures of this Advent chorale prelude confident preparation for festivities ahead.
Martin Ennis © 2020
In arranging this selection of Advent music, my priority has been to create an organic musical sequence, rather than arranging texts thematically. Nevertheless there are occasions when the latter also occurs. The Marian pieces by Pärt and Howells form a favourite pairing of mine. There is also a consecutive set of three St John’s commissions relating to John the Baptist. In the first, Cecilia McDowall depicts the rippling water of baptism. In the second, Gabriel Jackson uses a soprano saxophone to portray the voice crying in the wilderness. The third piece trumps that with the unique sound of the St John’s Trompeta Real. In choosing this sonority John McCabe may have been following the example of Michael Tippett who had, in his Magnificat, used the same rank of organ pipes to prepare us for the radical nature of Christ’s earthly life. Back in 1979 McCabe wrote one of my favourite St John’s commissions, Solomon! Where is thy throne?. John was also Composer-in-Residence for my first Three Choirs Festival as Artistic Director in 2004. What a pleasure it was to welcome him back to College nearly three decades after his first commission here.
Another of my favourite St John’s commissions is Judith Bingham’s The clouded heaven, premiered by Christopher Robinson and David Hill in 1998. I was delighted that Judith agreed to write a new piece for us, this time employing our astonishingly talented third-year undergraduate Ignacio Mañá Mesas. Elsewhere on the disc we are joined by harpist, Anne Denholm, who has played with us so many times since she was a Cambridge student. It was also a pleasure to collaborate with Jakob Lindberg for the first time, having met him when he gave a beautiful concert in the Master’s Lodge with Dame Emma Kirkby. For the Telemann a small group of trebles gathered around the lutenist to create an affecting intimacy of expression.
You may be wondering about my choice of a pomegranate for the cover image. At the beginning of the whole narrative, as described in Deo gracias, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace followed the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In Western Europe this fruit has often been depicted as an apple, hence the cover of our first Advent Live disc, but in other traditions a pomegranate is considered more likely. Through an interesting parallel in the story of Persephone, Ancient Greek mythology also associates the pomegranate with knowledge that is forbidden to mortals.
Congregational hymns may have less nuanced performance than some other tracks on the album, yet—in this time of social distancing—I hope to remind listeners of the sheer joy of being part of communal hymn-singing. The organ playing in these hymns needs to be loud, in order to lead those furthest away in the Ante-chapel, although that results in less-than-ideal balance on a recording. The musical culmination of the service is Lo! he comes with clouds descending. Advent looks forward to Christ’s birth, but this hymn gives us a powerful reminder of another Advent theme—preparing us for the Second Coming. Christopher Robinson’s descant provides a wonderful climax to the service. The second note of the descant—a top G—is one of the most joyous moments of our liturgical year; it brings a tear to my eye as I listen, partly because of the musical brilliance of the composer, but also because at that moment of the service the choristers and I can think: ‘Hooray, we’ve made it! After ninety minutes of challenging live broadcast, now we can let our hair down!’ For the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds in their final year, that moment also seems to mark a culmination of the past four and a half years of training and dedicated hard work.
For many years orchestras, chamber musicians and solo instrumentalists have issued albums recorded in live performance. For some reason choirs have rarely followed suit, though this is our third such album. I am a great believer in the frisson of live performance, and I hope listeners can imagine themselves as being part of the large congregation, packed in close to the Choir. Whilst I write these words during the Coronavirus pandemic, such experiences are only possible in the imagination; there is a poignant added dimension to the Advent themes of hope and longing.
Andrew Nethsingha © 2020