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All-new Christmas tracks from composer Patrick Hawes—responding to texts both newly commissioned and from the most ancient liturgies—are here performed by the Voce chamber choir of Connecticut.
The album begins with the question What child is this? and each of the carols and motets which follow offer their own particular response. It is a question stated simply and honestly, and the words of the chorus of the hymn itself humbly suggest that the answer is to do with kingship—a kingship which inspires ‘haste to bring him laud’. Two fifteenth-century carols follow, the first set for a cappella voices in a traditional, strophic style and the second incorporating bright, detached organ figurations. Both are full of joyous expectation with In Bethlehem, that noble place repeatedly celebrating the birth of ’the saviour of the world’ and This endernight relaying an intimate dialogue between Mary and Joseph as they reveal their parental devotion and deep protectiveness towards the new-born child. The Nativity is a collection of six carols with brand-new texts by my brother. Three of these, which are more upbeat in nature, follow the structure of verse and chorus and intersperse themselves with the more reflective poetry of 'The manger', 'The oxen' and 'The star', thereby providing a sense of both overall momentum and contrast. The manger, the oxen and the star are all relatively static elements of the nativity story, demanding a more meditative approach to tempo, atmosphere and structure whereas 'The infant', 'The shepherds' and 'The magi' are each about human protagonists, full of the Holy Spirit and the wonder and excitement which accompanies new life. As a whole, they make an effective collection for concert performance but are also designed for individual use within the context of a Christmas service.
Joseph’s carol resorts to purely male voices and touches of plainsong in its evocation of the total submission to God of this extraordinarily selfless man. Before we hear Behold the King—Andrew’s other older text—the gentle waltz rhythms of Still, still the night are the result of a more recent collaboration, this time a commission from ‘Choir of the Earth’ and their musical director Ben England which had its online premiere during the first Christmas of the COVID pandemic. The organ reappears for Behold the King, enhancing the unbridled sense of majesty and victory through its colourful registrations and insistent rhythmic patterns. There could not be more of a contrast between this vibrant carol and 'Virga Jesse' which is the first of the Four Christmas motets. The devotional atmosphere and Latin text create a sound world of timelessness and deep prayer, made all the more meditative by the hushed alleluias. 'Puer natus in Bethlehem' is an unabashed announcement to the world of the life-changing news of Christ’s birth, with the rhythmic propulsion and more explosive alleluias painting a scene of unrestrained celebration. 'Nesciens mater' essentially pays homage to those great Renaissance polyphonists who paved the way of the major and minor key system. It was the expressive and uniquely characterful nature of the individual voice parts which not only gave their music life but also a profound spirituality, and it is hoped that something of this same spirituality is in evidence here. The collection ends with the dance-like 'Gaudete omnes'. After the opening unison ‘fanfare’, the syncopated rhythms and agile melodic elements of the motet pass freely between the voices, creating a sense of dialogue and, ultimately, elation.
The text of The heart of Mary first appeared on a Christmas card from my brother and his wife, and I was instantly moved to set it to music. More than any other track on this album, due devotion is payed to the Mother of Our Lord. The scene quickly changes to that of travelling Minstrels wooing their audiences with catchy, lilting melodies and haunting poetry. The tenors and basses depict the strumming of a guitar while sopranos and altos relay Wordsworth’s beautiful description of this rural Christmas scene. In keeping with the fifteenth-century text, Lullay my liking reverts to a more medieval style in what is effectively a lullaby for the Child in the manger. The sopranos are omitted here in order to create a richer and denser choral texture. The colours of Christmas immediately brings us back to our present age, as flowing piano patterns underpin the significance of the bright colours of the festive season through which ‘all darkness turns to light.’
Patrick Hawes © 2023