The statement Christmas Will Be Different This Year has become something of a 2020 cliché. That does not diminish its essential truth, but perhaps masks the fact that some of those differences might be no bad thing. For many, the statement implies that long-standing traditions and conventions will be lost; and this seems to be something which many dread. However, I, for one, will celebrate if, instead of the usual crop of clone Christmas carol compendia with their mawkish lyrics, nostalgic tunes and inevitable crop of popular arrangements spiced up by 'new' settings assembled by nonentity choir directors and unadventurous organists, we get more like this latest release from the London Oratory Schola Cantorum.
Recorded, I see, on the very eve of the UK’s first Coronavirus lockdown, and in the generous acoustic of St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, this 57-strong choir of boys and men, makes an absolutely heavenly sound. There is purity in the tone, exquisite balance across the voices, and a magical empathy with this programme of 15th and 16th century polyphonic motets which set texts relevant to the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. With the shenanigans which have been going on at Westminster Cathedral, I suppose this choir must now stand as the premier Roman Catholic choir in the UK; and, frankly, it gives most Anglican cathedral choirs a good run for their money if the evidence of this CD is anything to go on.
We open with a scintillating account of Sweelinck’s well-known Hodie Christus natus est with its pealing 'alleluias', and among other familiar favourites are Scheidt’s Puer natus in Bethlehem which director Charles Cole drives along with a fabulous sense of buoyant energy, and a hauntingly evocative account of Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. Some others may be less familiar; Guerrero’s Pastores loquebantur and Mouton’s Nesciens mater ooze affection and the most profound sense of calm. Charles Cole writes how this music is sung in the London Oratory during the Christmas season, and there is that indelible sense of deep familiarity about these performances which bring it all very much to life. On top of that, Cole himself is a superbly gifted choral director, moulding and shaping his choir into a conglomerate whole which makes a sound which is both deeply satisfying and infinitely stimulating. If only every disc of Christmas music was this distinguished in content and performance quality.