Compact discs for Christmas

by
12 December 2007

Roderic Dunnett makes a selection of recent releases

I DOUBT whether there are many more admirable choirs outside Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge than the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum. Only two years ago, these first-rate singing boys learned that their choir school was to be closed at a term’s notice. Yet their future is now assured, thanks to the foresight of Dean Close School in Cheltenham, which fed and housed them, and their exceptional choirmaster, Benjamin Nicholas.

On Tewkesbury’s new Christmas disc, “The Three Kings” (Delphian DCD 24047), Nicholas’s choir give proof yet again of the qualities that place them firmly in the front rank: flair, acumen, versatility, and poise. Just a taste of Gabriel Jackson’s “The Magi” or of Philip Wilby’s lovely carol “The Word Made Flesh” will easily persuade you. The boys’ voices enchant in Howells’s Cradle Song (“O, my deir heart”). Their second Parry offering, “When Christ was born”, like his Songs of Farewell and all five symphonies (thrillingly recorded by Matthias Bamert on Chandos 9120, a triple disc), gives a measure of why this most generous of men deserves to be ranked among Europe’s true greats.

Tewkesbury’s latest discs under Benjamin Nicholas have all been first-class: “Choral Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey” (DCD 34713) included Jackson’s Tewkesbury Service, written for the choir before news of the school’s closure; and a complete disc of music by Sir John Stainer (Priory PRCD 833), some of it rarely heard, offers the perfect foil to Jeremy Dibble’s authoritative new biography of Stainer (Books for Christmas, 23 November).

All three Tewkesbury discs have the supreme bonus of Carleton Etherington’s organ playing. Langlais’s La Nativité and a stupendous Toccata by Garth Edmundson (1900-71) are among the treats on the Christmas disc, while Etherington’s versatility is perfectly displayed on his exciting Regent disc “Variation” (Regent REG CD 176), which includes Peeters, Karg-Elert, Reger, the Leipzig-trained Arno Landmann (1887-1966), and the equally adept Karl Höller (1907-97).

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All three Tewkesbury discs have the supreme bonus of Carleton Etherington’s organ playing. Langlais’s La Nativité and a stupendous Toccata by Garth Edmundson (1900-71) are among the treats on the Christmas disc, while Etherington’s versatility is perfectly displayed on his exciting Regent disc “Variation” (Regent REG CD 176), which includes Peeters, Karg-Elert, Reger, the Leipzig-trained Arno Landmann (1887-1966), and the equally adept Karl Höller (1907-97).

Wells Cathedral, whose choir excels in both its boys’ and girls’ departments, is certainly riding high at present, as witness its two latest offerings under Matthew Owens. “Christmas from Wells” (REGCD 260) launches in with the première recording of “The Lord of All” by Robert Walker, a composer in his early 60s of whom we may, I hope, hear more in coming years, now he has returned from the Far East.

Richard Rowntree is the pleasing tenor soloist in Tavener’s “God is with us”. Owens draws wonderful sounds from a mature and highly musical team of young singers. Morton Lauridsen, Rutter, and Leighton are among the popular items featured, but I would recommend heading straight for Basil Athaniasidis’s “Antiphon to Mary” and Jan Sandström’s gorgeous and clever dissection of the chorale “Es ist ein’ Ros entsprungen”.

The Edmundsen Toccata again concludes: the organist here is Owens’s gifted assistant David Bednall, whose compositions fill another impressive Wells disc, “Hail, gladdening light” (Regent REGCD 247).

The Jubilate to his Wells Service is nigh-on an organ concerto: the Wells boys skip lithely above Bednall’s adept accompaniment; while a marked French influence — Messiaen, Alain — shows in the preceding Te Deum. There is some finely controlled men’s singing in “Come, Holy Ghost”, a striking Mass for Douai Abbey, a terrific two-boy lead to yet another Benedictus, and a haunting mystery to a modal solo-tinged Benedicite, the last encompassed in totality in a mere eight minutes. Bednall’s Gloucester service rounds off.

Never too late, perhaps, to recall another splendid Regent disc, “My Dancing Day” (REGCD 215), in which Marcus Huxley directs the boys and girls of the choir of Birmingham Cathedral in a programme heralded by Christmas and Annunciation music. Huxley’s choir prospers in early music. They carry off the wonderful Magnificat from the Eton Choirbook by John Nesbett (d. 1488), Deering’s almost Purcellian “Duo Seraphim”, and Sheppard’s “In manus tuas”.

The late John Sanders’s setting of the Reproaches is included, along with Sanders’s fiery Millennium anthem “The Firmament” (written for Birmingham), which includes some touching solo work. Priory has issued a memorable recording of John Sanders himself playing English music, including Peter Hurford and Francis Jackson (Priory PRCD 932).

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The lovely singing of the Mass and Vespers for the Feast of Holy Innocents by Haydn’s younger brother Michael, by the American Boychoir (Linn CKD 152), well merits a mention. Strings and horns accompany, and these touching, intimate performances have something of the Vienna Boys’ Choir about them. Boys take both soprano and the alto lines.

Their sound is far from Continental: this is a disc with a charming, old-fashioned feel: what one might call American Viennese-cum-English Cathedral timbre, and none the worse for it.

Plainsong antiphons intersperse Haydn’s four sprightly Vespers Psalm-settings and a beautiful slow “De profundis” (Psalm 130), plus blithe Magnificat. Stylistically, this recalls New College’s earlier double disc of rare Pergolesi, including his Marian Vespers (Erato 0927 46684-2).

The prodigious talent of the choir of Gonville and Caius College, directed with imagination and flair by Geoffrey Webber, remains one of Cambridge’s better-kept musical secrets. “All the Ends of the Earth”, a pairing of medieval and contemporary items ranging from 15th-century Dunstable to modern Holloway and Harvey (Signum SIGCD 070), also including two fine Latin anthems by Bayan Northcott, is a case in point.

To them, too, we owe a disc devoted entirely to John Sanders’s music (Priory PRCD 831), including not just “The Firmament”, the Gloucester Service, and the splendid Festival Te Deum, but an affecting Requiem setting, the anthem “My Beloved spake”, and several desirable organ pieces, such as the Soliloquy.

PICK of the year’s discs must undoubtedly include a Messiah recording (in Handel’s 1751 version) by New College, Oxford, under Edward Higginbottom (Naxos 8.570131-2). I warm to much, if not all, of his pacing, and his ex-New College soloists are terrific. This follows a St John Passion of equal imagination (8.557296-7), in which the deeply moving alto solos are sung by James Bowman.

A bumper Christmas box appears on Coro, the label of The Sixteen: three discs — “Hodie”, “Christus natus est”, and “A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection” — are boxed together (COR 16054) and can be acquired at a handsome discount from www.the-sixteen.org.uk.

A bumper Christmas box appears on Coro, the label of The Sixteen: three discs — “Hodie”, “Christus natus est”, and “A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection” — are boxed together (COR 16054) and can be acquired at a handsome discount from www.the-sixteen.org.uk.

Just as desirable are their other recent offerings: music by the Scottish composer Robert Carver (born c.1487), centred on his full-blooded Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium, probably heard at James V’s coronation after the disaster at Flodden (COR 16051); “Music from the Sistine Chapel”, including Marenzio, Anerio, and Allegri (COR 16047); and the exquisite “Ikon” (Universal Classics 4763160).

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The Coro label has also issued some riveting music from the Hilliard Ensemble, delving back to influential 12th/13th-century Paris with “Pérotin and the Ars Antiqua” (COR 16046), to the 15th-century Antoine Brumel, who began his career singing at Notre Dame de Chartres (COR 16052), and to the immortal Flanders composer Johannes Ockeghem (COR 16048).

Meanwhile, in addition to Christophers’s Sistine disc, above (16047), come two versions of the famed Allegri Miserere: one from the choir Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short, on Signum (SIGCD 085), interspersed with the Lotti “Crucifixus” and works from the 19th and 20th centuries — including a lovely communion anthem by Count Alexander Sheremetiev (1859-1931) and a gorgeous Polish Ave Maria by Pawel Lukaszewski; and another from the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips (Gimell CDGIM 041), in which the Allegri is performed in two versions along with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.

It is to Phillips’s Tallis Scholars, too, that we also owe two resplendent collections of William Byrd: “Playing Elizabeth’s Tune” (CDGIM 992), originally relating to a BBC TV programme, and including superbly sung Latin extracts from his influential middle collection of Cantiones Sacrae (1589), from the 1605 Gradualia, Byrd’s Four-Part Mass, and his exquisite setting of a prayer for the Queen; or alternatively a double disc (CDGIM 208) encompassing each of these works and incorporating all three Masses.

It is to Phillips’s Tallis Scholars, too, that we also owe two resplendent collections of William Byrd: “Playing Elizabeth’s Tune” (CDGIM 992), originally relating to a BBC TV programme, and including superbly sung Latin extracts from his influential middle collection of Cantiones Sacrae (1589), from the 1605 Gradualia, Byrd’s Four-Part Mass, and his exquisite setting of a prayer for the Queen; or alternatively a double disc (CDGIM 208) encompassing each of these works and incorporating all three Masses.

All three collections of Cantiones Sacrae (1576, 1589, and 1591) feature on New College’s triple disc for the crd label (CRD 5003), and a first-rate collection has been issued by Hereford Cathedral Choir under Geraint Bowen (Griffin GCCD 4048), with an enlightening commentary. They include “Laetentur coeli” and “Rorate coeli desuper”, stylishly done; the superb “Justorum animae”, “Psallite Domino”, and “Haec dies”; “Exsurge, Domine”; and a well-judged performance of the second set of Evening Canticles.

All three collections of Cantiones Sacrae (1576, 1589, and 1591) feature on New College’s triple disc for the crd label (CRD 5003), and a first-rate collection has been issued by Hereford Cathedral Choir under Geraint Bowen (Griffin GCCD 4048), with an enlightening commentary. They include “Laetentur coeli” and “Rorate coeli desuper”, stylishly done; the superb “Justorum animae”, “Psallite Domino”, and “Haec dies”; “Exsurge, Domine”; and a well-judged performance of the second set of Evening Canticles.

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My No. 1 choice of an outstanding single-composer disc, however, hails from Truro: “Peace on Earth”, from Lammas (190D), is devoted entirely to Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Robert Sharpe’s artistry produces truly sensational results from his Truro boys. The treble solos are a knockout, and the musical insight shown by all is astonishing. The alto soloists are terrific, too. Men and boys alike find a rare emotional depth, and a subtle fusion of English and Continental tone works wonders.

At “Nay, let me weep” you’ll feel the tears welling. Christopher Gray accompanies fluently, and Sharpe adds a handful of appealing organ solos. Lammas has ceased recording now. Its founder, Lance Andrews, has retired to churchwardening and singing, but his back-catalogue is a glorious treasure-trove (www.lammas.co.uk).

At “Nay, let me weep” you’ll feel the tears welling. Christopher Gray accompanies fluently, and Sharpe adds a handful of appealing organ solos. Lammas has ceased recording now. Its founder, Lance Andrews, has retired to churchwardening and singing, but his back-catalogue is a glorious treasure-trove (www.lammas.co.uk).

Nostalgists should make for Guildford Cathedral’s double disc “Barry Rose and the early years 1961-73”. This gives wonderful glimpses of the tentative emergence of a truly splendid choir and a great choir-trainer.

Just to hear a psalm with Battishill chant, a sensationally beautiful Cornelius “Three Kings”, Barry Rose at work in rehearsal, his boys articulating the lovely unattributed carol “Hark, in the darkness”, and carols by John Joubert and Elizabeth Maconchy (whose centenary fell this year), shows just what stupendous artistic finesse he quickly drew from his charges.

Listen in to Varley Roberts’s gorgeous, Mendelssohnian “Seek ye the Lord” (with tenor solo), the men singing enraptured (and rare) late Harris, a lovely alto-tenor Handel duet, and fabulously modulated singing of Taverner, or Tomkins’s superlative verse anthem “Above the Stars”, with Rose accompanying on the small West Gallery organ.

A 1972 Jubilate by the youthful Bill Ives, then one of Guildford’s tenors, and Tippett’s Nunc Dimittis reveal the registering skills of Rose’s inspired assistant, Anthony Froggatt.

The disc easily matches in value recent archive reissues from Salisbury (on their own SCS label), and from the Temple Church and York Minster, plus “The Better Land: Historic Boy Sopranos” (all these last on Amphion).

Most polished of all contemporary collections is the King’s Singers’ “Landscape” on Signum (SIGCD 090), which includes Maxwell Davies’s Christmas Sequence “House of Winter”, and beautifully articulate singing of Bennett, McCabe, Jackson Hill (b. 1941), and four psalm settings by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962). Top-notch.

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For an unbuttoned Christmas, also on Signum (SIGCD 107) is the Swingle Singers’ “. . . unwrapped”. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto gets a vocal treatment, the solos for “Walking in the Air” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” are touching, and “O Tannenbaum” benefits from a Perry Como-era approach.

FOR organ buffs, two recommendations hail from different ends of the market. Kevin Bowyer’s new Regent CD “Storm” includes some fascinating repertoire. The intriguing Grand Dramatic Fantasia is by the long-lived and much-travelled Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858), who inaugurated the new Birmingham Town Hall organ in 1833.

The great Lefébure-Wély (1817-69) presided over Cavaillé-Colls in three Paris churches, including the Madeleine and St-Sulpice, later the preserve of Dupré. Scène Pastorale is an impressive Fantaisie with a similar stormy outburst and wonderfully bizarre tweeting birds. An Ocean Tempest evidences the blazing skills of Gatty Sellars (born c.1884): from rampant squalls, the St Anne hymn tune finally emerges.

Reger in 1901 arranged Liszt’s St Francis of Paola walks upon the waters: for the storm, Bowyer deploys every reed in sight on the brilliant Blackburn Cathedral organ, one of — some would say the — finest instrument in England. David Clegg’s A Church Service interrupted by a thunderstorm ingeniously evokes an incumbent’s nightmare.

A chance to hear Elgar’s Organ Sonata, split across four organs of the Streatham and Norwood areas, comes with “Grand Chorus: 22 Historic Organs South of the Thames”, an imaginative double disc issued by the Royal Academy of Music (RAM 032). There’s Howells from Merstham; Stanford-like Coleridge-Taylor from Woodcote; beautifully delicate Boyce and impressive William Russell (1777-1813) from St Paul’s, Deptford; Mendelssohn from West Croydon and Rotherhithe; a noble Smart Andante from Holy Trinity, Wandsworth; breezy Francis Bache (1833-1858) from Tulse Hill; lovely Harris and stately Novello (arranged Stainer) from Nic Turner and David Titterington at St Giles’s, Camberwell; Attwood’s autumnal, Nelsonian Dirge, and tripping S. S. Wesley from St James’s, Bermondsey; and the wonderful Air by the latter’s father from St Swithun’s, Hither Green.

The recording quality is superb throughout. A wide span of manufacturers and an even vaster range of performers are represented, even if some of the readings feel (to my ears) a fraction staid. Hollins’s A Song of Sunshine toots out from Tooting; and a final blast of Stanford from the Royal Festival Hall concludes.

FOR a more traditional Christmas, there’s always “Christmas with the Salvation Army” (EMI Gold 543118-2). It is kicked off by “Three Kings Swing” and “Shining Star”, played by the truly wonderful Regent Hall Band.

The Cardiff Canton band is exquisitely haunting (“Who is he?”); bands from Wrexham and Nottingham are more rough and ready, but characterful. The Coventry City band is rather medieval in spirit (“Normandy carol”), and that of Castleford (near Barnsley) is rather civic and stately. Southport’s Citadel band is straight out of the ITMA era; and Liverpool Walton Band is full of melancholy charm. Worth it for the Regent Hall’s first four Christmas tracks alone.

www.regent-records.co.uk; www.signumrecords.com www.priory.org.uk; www.lammas.co.uk; www.delphianrecords.co.uk; www.naxos.com; www.the-sixteen.org.uk; www.gimell.com; www.griffinrecords.co.uk; amphion-recordings.com; www.linnrecords.comwww.crdrecords.com; www.emirecords.co.uk; www.chandos.net 

www.regent-records.co.uk; www.signumrecords.com www.priory.org.uk; www.lammas.co.uk; www.delphianrecords.co.uk; www.naxos.com; www.the-sixteen.org.uk; www.gimell.com; www.griffinrecords.co.uk; amphion-recordings.com; www.linnrecords.comwww.crdrecords.com; www.emirecords.co.uk; www.chandos.net 

The Guildford double disc is £10 plus £1.50 p. & p. from Janet Werner, Cathedral Development Officer (phone 01483 547878).

The RAM double disc is £12 plus £1.50 p. & p. from Academy Chimes (phone 020 7873 7400).

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