When you're on a roll, you're on a roll: this is the sixth Gabrieli Consort issue on its own 'Winged Lion' imprint, and easily matches the outstanding quality of its predecessors. This is partly due to conductor Paul McCreesh's bold and imaginative programming, resulting in a Christmas issue which is genuinely challenging and different.
The new disc kicks off with a beautiful setting of Adam lay ybounden by the young composer Matthew Martin. Emerging hushed and distanced, as from the very depths of history, Martin's music evokes in an extraordinarily suggestive manner the theological paradox buried within the Eden story—that Mary's to 'heav'né queen' depended upon sin itself, and the need to purge it later with a saviour. The Gabrieli's rapt and intense performance is remarkable in its poise and tonal control at mainly low dynamic levels.
From there it's back to the thirteenth century, for the traditional Veni, Veni Emanuel. The opening two verses, first women, then men, are done in unison, which can be painfully revealing of a choir's technical weaknesses. Here there are none—one simply marvels at the easy unanimity of note placement, and also of nuance and expression.
The pattern of modern juxtaposed with ancient continues, Howell's poignantly retrospective Long, long ago rubbing shoulders with the medieval monody of Lullay, lullay, a limpid solo by countertenor Matthew Venner, who sustains its seven-minute span superbly. There's more fine solo work from soprano Ruth Provost at the beginning of Leighton's A Hymn of the Nativity, whose intense, affecting dialogue contrasts strikingly with the placid Sarum Chant Letabundus which follows. In the same mellifluous vein is Francis Pott's Balulalow, where Emma Walshe's crystal-pure soprano soars elegantly above the gently undulating choral textures. Jonathan Dove also uses a rocking rhythm to underlay The Three Kings, whose clamorous climax is incisively dispatched by the singers.
Capping the programme is a magnificent account of Britten's A Boy was Born, by turns deeply inward and blazingly expressive. The dauntingly difficult Variation VI (Noël) which closes the piece is a tour de force of Gabrieli virtuosity: it's an incredibly energised and concentrated piece of singing, and culminates in joy exuberance.
At the heart of everything is the consummate technical ability and sense of idiom displayed by the 28 Gabrieli singers, and McCreesh's inspirational direction. It's the type of artistry that completely avoids the impression of artifice: you simply feel you're listening directly to what the composer meant by the music. A wonderful Christmas offering: treat yourself or one of your friends, or both, to it.