I love Belfast Cathedral – officially, The Cathedral Church of St Anne. Although not a frequent visitor, I have attended services on several occasions. The nobility of worship and the artistry of the choir have always impressed me. Sadly, the last time I attended, the choir was on holiday or tour. Nevertheless, the precentor lead a dignified and moving “said” Evening Prayer. The present CD gives a broad selection of Christmas music from a wide range of mainly British composers.
There is no need to give a commentary on all twenty tracks on this generous and well-planned CD. I will pick out a few highlights. The Christian name “Philip” is well represented here. First up, is Philip Ledger, David Willcocks’s distinguished successor at the “Home of Christmas Music,” King’s College, Cambridge. The Voice of the Angel Gabriel was one of his final compositions. It is muted and straightforward, but never loses interest. Still, still, still is a serene arrangement of an old Austrian carol. More vivacious, is Ledger’s Sussex Carol which presents a worthy arrangement of the wonderful tune collected by RVW. The organ accompaniment is particularly cheerful.
Most folk will associate Philip Wilby with brass bands. But he has written music for a wide range of resources. It often reflects his deep Christian faith. Moonless darkness stands between is a rarity, in being a seasonal setting of a poem by the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The burden of the words is a longing that the “Christmas star [will] guide him to a vision of the Christ-Child.” It is truly beautiful, and my big discovery on this disc.
I am always interested to hear what a famous text sounds like in a new or novel version. In the bleak midwinter has its fans for the unforgettable carol by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke. So, what about Philip Moore’s 2001 essay. It is bleak, uncompromising and desolate, with only a hint of warmth toward the end. I wonder if it will ever become a favourite.
Philip Stopford’s three numbers are varied. Adam lay ybounden is a bit grindy, with what begins as a simple melody and “grows and grows” with various key changes to a powerful peroration. It does not work for me. I felt more at home with the exquisite Lullay, my liking: it is well-structured and exploits various combinations to provide a consoling lullaby. What shall we offer thee, O Christ? is a timeless motet celebrating the visit of the Three Magi to the infant Jesus.
The choir nearly swings or jumps with John Gardner’s A Gallery Carol. I have not consciously heard this before. It is full of rhythmic bounce. One of the surprises (for me) on this disc.
No carol concert would be complete without a piece by John Rutter. Mary’s Lullaby contrasts a lovely, elegant tune, accompanied by rich harmonies. As usual, with Rutter it is a gorgeous creation. Rutter was born in 1945, not 1947, as printed in the track listings.
I was glad that the choir included Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a Maiden. It was written originally for two-part boys’ choir supported by piano. Here the ladies and the organist provide a tender rendition of this setting of a sixteenth century text.
The carol concert ends with the remarkable Toccata on Good King Wenceslas by the choir’s director Matthew Owens. It is full of wit, parody and fun. As the liner notes suggest, the tune only makes itself apparent as the piece nears its conclusion. This is immediately followed by Bob Chilcott’s characteristic arrangement of this well-loved carol.
The liner notes by Nigel Simeone give a considerable amount of information about the programme. The notes are not presented in chronological or batting order, but by composer. There are various dates of composition missing. I have tried to supply these dates where possible. Furthermore, despite there being two organ solos, no specification of the instrument is given. For the readers’ information, it was installed by Harrison and Harrison in 1907, and was subsequently rebuilt by the same firm in 1975. The specification can be found at the National Pipe Organ Register. It remains one of Ulster’s finest organs.
The record company must provide these details, and not assume that the purchaser will be able or wish to chase up this information.
On a positive note, there are good CVs of the organist, harpist, choir and musical director. The texts of all the carols are included.
All said, this is a superb new CD, designed to put all but the most Scrooge-like into a sympathetic festive mood. It is more thoughtful and restrained than some other carol recitals, but this meditative and reserved approach is a valid part of the Christmas celebration.Track Listing:
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-87)
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)
Philip LEDGER (1937-2012)
The Voice of the Angel Gabriel (2012)
Gary DAVISON (b.1961)
Rorate coeli desuper
Philip STOPFORD (b.1977)
Adam lay ybounden (2009)
Philip MOORE (b.1943)
Immortal Babe (1960)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy (A Carol of the Nativity) for organ solo (1913/19)
Michael PRAETORIUS (ca.1571-1621)
A Great and Mighty Wonder (1609) (arr. Erling PEDERSEN (b.1944))
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
I sing of a maiden (1936)
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Mary’s Lullaby (1978)
Lullay, my liking (2019)
Watts’ Cradle Song (1965, rev.1996)
John GARDNER (1917-2011)
A Gallery Carol, op.109, no.4 (1971)
Philip WILBY (b.1949)
Moonless darkness stands between
Still, still, still (1982)
O Bethlehem (1956)
In the bleak midwinter (2001)
On Christmas night (Sussex Carol) (1978)
What shall we offer thee, O Christ (2019)
Matthew OWENS (b.1971)
Toccata on Good King Wenceslas for organ solo
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
Good King Wenceslas
Gráinne Meyer (harp), Jack Wilson (organ) Belfast Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 26–28 June 2021, Belfast Cathedral
Resonus Classics RES10292
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.