It must be quite a challenge to put together an enticing Christmas programme on CD. In his brief introductory note accompanying this new disc Nigel Short admits that he had some initial misgivings but his enthusiasm was fired by a discussion with one of Tenebrae's patrons and this disc is the result. The aim has been to 'provide a musical breath of fresh air come Christmas time and also give us a chance to herald the extraordinary talents of some of the most dedicated and less well-known individuals from the world of English choral music in the 20th century.' Thus, though we find some familiar names and pieces in this programme, there are also several items that may well be new to listeners, as they were to me.
Under the 'familiar' heading would certainly come John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day but how many people are familiar with the other two pieces by him in this programme? Actually, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day was the one piece that disappointed me here. Frankly, I've heard more energetic renditions. It seems to me that this Tenebrae performance is more concerned with beauty of sound and as a result anything to do with dancing gets overlooked. Sadly, the performance lacks verve. However, that's the only criticism I would wish to make of this programme. The other two Gardner carols are done very well indeed. Balulalow is simply gorgeous, with a lovely soprano solo at the start, while the forthright A gallery carol, in which Gardner sets the same text that we've heard from Christopher Robinson earlier in the programme, provides an upbeat finish to the disc.
Some of Peter Warlock's pieces are well-known too; indeed all the five pieces included here are very fine. I was especially glad to encounter As dew in Aprylle, which is less familiar to me than its companions.
Several of the composers featured here are perhaps better known to us as conductors. That's certainly true, so far as I'm concerned, of the much-missed Richard Hickox. In fact, I'll admit that I didn't know he had composed any music. His little piece, The Birds, is a setting of lines by Percy Dearmer. It's a charming, lilting composition with a discreet organ accompaniment underpinning the singers. Christopher Robinson, the distinguished Director of Music at St John's College Cambridge in the years before his retirement, is represented by a setting of Rejoice and be merry which is for the most part forthright and joyful. I enjoyed it. Sir Philip Ledger presided over the music 'down the road' from St John's, at King's College. His happy setting of The Sussex Carol (On Christmas night as it's billed here) is extremely familiar but Adam lay ybounden may be less well-known. If so that's unjust because it's excellent. Did he compose it for King's, I wonder? Simon Preston is represented by three pieces and all are well worth hearing.
There are some much less familiar names among the list of composers selected by Nigel Short. I don't quite classify Richard Lloyd among them for quite a number of his pieces have been recorded and his music is regularly sung in cathedrals. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Love came down at Christmas, a delicate setting of words by Christina Rossetti, is more than welcome. Philip Radcliffe was one of Lloyd's tutors at Cambridge in the 1950s. I've heard one or two of his pieces before but not Mary walked through a wood of thorn. I'm very glad to have encountered it here; this is a beautiful a capella setting.
The name of Jonathan Lane is unfamiliar to me and I will just say in passing that it would have been nice to have some information about the composers and music in the booklet; in that respect the documentation is deficient. Lane's unaccompanied setting of There is no rose is mostly gentle in tone and very welcome. In its gentleness it's more what I would expect of a setting of these lines than the setting by Simon Preston of the same text. Preston's piece has some lively episodes in it which took me rather by surprise—in a good way; I admired his piece very much. Another composer previously unknown to me is Alec Redshaw. His I sing of a maiden is much simpler than the setting by Bax. I like Redshaw's piece very much—which is not to say that I don't also like the Bax. Redshaw's composition is gentle in tone and disarming. Richard Knight's Come rock his cradle is a gently flowing piece for chorus with organ. The melody is lovely and Knight's beguiling setting includes some intriguing harmonic turns.
In summary, the programme has been shrewdly chosen and though it includes a sprinkling of familiar pieces there is a pleasing amount of music that is less well-known. More pleasing still, all the latter pieces prove to be well worth hearing. It is probably superfluous to say that the performances by Tenebrae are top class—but they are. The recording is good. Some may feel that the singers are positioned slightly too close to the microphones but I was happy overall with the sound. The documentation is satisfactory though, as I suggested earlier, it would have been nice to learn something about the composers—and their pieces—since quite a number are not exactly household names.