It’s Boxing Day, so as usual on 5:4 here’s music from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.
The highlight was this year’s commissioned carol, composed by Tansy Davies, setting Christina Rossetti’s poem Christmas Eve. Considering Tansy’s previous output, which consists largely of hard-edged, punchy instrumental works, it was hard to know quite what to expect. On the one hand, Christmas Eve is a definite stylistic departure, but on the other, it’s a seriously beguiling one. In parallel with the text, the piece blows hot and cold through the opening stanza, exploring some intriguing and paradoxical contrasts: “Christmas hath a darkness/Brighter than the blazing noon”. In the first line of each phrase, Tansy establishes a series of winding, independent strands, lingering over the words (finally – a composer unafraid to repeat whole lines of text!); these strands are then pulled together, creating some marvellous chords, before the choir erupts with the answering line. It’s a masterly approach, one that bears repetition, but thankfully is modified in the second verse, where the text veers off into a more celebratory tone. Both verses conclude with an exciting fanfare-like response to the line “Christmas bringeth Jesus”, followed by a strange and faintly tragic ending—”brought for us so low”—where trailing lines slowly drag downward (a moment that bears some stylistic comparison to Thomas Adès). Overall, it’s an imaginative and thoughtful response to Rossetti’s text (at last providing choirs with an alternative to In the Bleak Midwinter), one that places the entire focus on the words and forces the listener—as the best choral pieces do—to reflect hard on them.