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This Christmas album from Tenebrae—their fourth foray into this richest of seams of repertoire—has at its heart Benjamin Britten's sublime Ceremony of Carols. Either side we are treated to a blistering rendition of Edward Naylor's Vox dicentis and other favourites, and welcome room has also been found for some gorgeous 'new finds': works like Joanna Forbes L'Estrange's Advent 'O' Carol, a sublime blend of catchy and comforting, weaving simplicity into something so much more.
As always, the programme reflects my own eclectic taste. I am still amazed at the beauty and wondrous atmosphere of this music when we perform it—even when we recorded it in the decidedly non-festive month of March! I’ve long wanted to record Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, having performed it myself as a boy treble and later conducted Tenebrae’s sopranos and altos in many live performances. I find the innocence of the treble voice incredibly effective in some of these texts, and I’m delighted that we were joined on this recording by Joshua Davidson—a former chorister in the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge—in the solo ‘That yongë child’. Throughout the whole sequence, we worked hard to recreate the wide-eyed sense of wonder and fun I recall feeling when I first heard and sang this music.
A Ceremony of Carols acts as something of a centre-piece on the album and is preceded by music for Advent. I like to imagine a darkened chapel or church as the lone soprano voices begin the programme with The Shepherd’s Carol by Bob Chilcott—who himself experienced many magical Christmas services as a chorister and choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. Other highlights include Joanna Marsh’s atmospheric new piece In winter’s house, composed in 2019 for Tenebrae’s tenors and basses, and the rollercoaster Advent anthem Vox dicentis, composed by Edward Naylor for the choir of King’s, Cambridge. This recording was made possible by Richard Baker, a long-time friend of Tenebrae, who sang this piece as a chorister at King’s in the days when Boris Ord was Director of Music, and also later as a choral scholar under David Willcocks.
After the Britten we gently make our way through some beautiful new settings of Christmas poetry, with offerings from some well-known composers and several relatively new names in the world of choral music. We end with a simple and beautiful lullaby set to music by Joseph Phibbs. The final phrase gently resolves but hangs in the air, hopefully leaving the listener with a heady mix of nostalgic glances to Christmases past and the hope of a happier, calmer world in Christmases to come. I hope there is something for everyone to enjoy here and that this album gives as much pleasure to listeners as it did to me and the singers when we recorded it.
Nigel Short © 2022