It’s Advent Sunday, the start of a new Church year, and before you can say “Tis the season…”, here comes the first carol service, broadcast live this afternoon from—as usual—St John’s College, Cambridge.
The introduction to the service began with a setting by Matthew Martin of the 15th century text Adam lay ybounden. While the text is as morally confused as ever, it is at least made a bit more interesting by Martin, whose setting ventures just a little beyond conventional harmonies, made all the more effective by its coming from a distance (the choir performing from the far west end of the chapel). It’s interesting to note that, while the anonymous text is intimately connected with Christmas, hearing it in a setting other than Boris Ord’s horribly hackneyed one keeps the sense of distance from Christmas fittingly strong.
In Out of your Sleep, Richard Rodney Bennett‘s approach is to create a pretend (but convincing) folk melody, left more-or-less plain in the odd verses, harmonised in different ways in the even verses; the final verse is striking, becoming slower and more reflective. Swedish composer Sven-Erik Bäck‘s motet Nox praecessit follows; Bäck allows the words to grow in anticipation organically, building to a busy, fast-flowing climax before ebbing away. There are times when the lower voices are a little unclear, and the final triad seems forced following the fluid harmonies heard throughout; something less resolved might have been more telling, considering the anticipatory tone of the text.
Like its big brother, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, this service also features a new commission each year, and for 2010 Roxanna Panufnik was chosen, taking as her text George Herbert’s poem The Call. She adds to the choir a harp, creating an opulent, even heady setting, the continual upward motion of the harp sounding like clouds of rising incense; it’s a gorgeous piece, each stanza bestowed with Panufnik’s trademark rich tonality. Christopher Robinson‘s take on the carol Make we joy now in this fest is wisely-placed, being as it is something of a parallel to Matthew Martin’s piece at the start of the service. It keeps the rhythmic spirit of Mathias alive, drawing on harmonies that go on brief, oblique excursions through each verse before their inevitable return, a great way to close the choral contributions in the service.
Matthew Martin – Adam lay ybounden
Richard Rodney Bennett – Out of your Sleep