This is an excellent compilation of Christmas music that shows considerable imagination and variety. From the transcendent sound of William Byrd to the more pungent music of William Mathias by way of an urbane contribution from Francis Poulenc, this CD offers an exciting and thoughtful contrast to many run of the mill seasonal offerings.
There are four pieces by William Byrd. It was once written about this composer that he was a ‘pastoral poet who loves misty distances, soft hues, gently undulating landscapes…a countryman, whose rural lyricism decks itself in the most exquisite graces that can be imagined by an artistic temperament at once simple and refined’ (Van den Borren). It is this ability to create a vocal tone-poem that impressed me with these pieces. Not only does the composer communicate the theological and liturgical message of the texts, he is able to present a musical evocation of the nativity landscape imagined by poets and painters. However, this landscape has been translated to England. Truly wonderful and uplifting.
At the other end of the scale is William Mathias’s ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ op.45 which exploits a variety of harmonic devices old and new. For example, the medieval practice of ‘organum’ parallel movement of voices is contrasted with 20th century bitonality: the open ‘fourths and fifths’ are juxtaposed with sharp dissonances. The complex organ part is integral to this work. ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ was commissioned by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and was first heard at Llandaff Cathedral on 6 December 1969.
Other works on this CD include the masterly antiphon ‘Mater Christi sanctissima’ by John Taverner, and an elegant and thoughtful setting by Palestrina of the Magnificat. John Sheppard’s superb anthem ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude, Maria’ is a complex six-part work probably written during the reign of Queen Mary.
Finally, I have never come across the Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751). Seemingly, he was a fairly prolific composer of liturgical music. After study in Rome he spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon and latterly became a master of music in the Basilica de Santa Maria which was an adjunct of Lisbon Cathedral. His music is well-wrought and colourful. In some places he seems to be moving towards an operatic style rather than adhering to the then strict requirements of the Roman Catholic Church. It is hardly surprising that he is deemed to be the finest (if still largely unknown) Portuguese composer of his generation.
The presentation of this CD has one or two minor issues. It would have been good to have the texts of these pieces: as far as I can tell, they are all out of copyright. I accept that the listener can find these on the internet, but having them to hand is ideal. This is a compilation, which is fine, but some idea of when each track was ‘laid down’ would have been useful. Finally, some of these pieces have an organ part, but the organist is not credited.
In the round, this is a most refreshing contribution to the very large number of Christmas CDs currently available. The singing is always impressive and the choice of programme inspiring.
Williams BYRD (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence, op.45 (1969)
John TAVERNER (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima
William BYRD Hodie Christus natus est; O magnum Misterium; Puer natus est nobis
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-c.1559) Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941)
Giovanni Pierluigi PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6)
João Rodrigues ESTEVES (c1700-1751) Beati Dei Genitrix; Verbum caro factum est
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Nimbus Records NI7096
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.