Advent & Christmas

Mixtape #52 : Christmas

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For the last of my 2018 monthly mixtapes, which i’ve been doing throughout 5:4‘s 10th anniversary year, i’ve gone seasonal and turned to the theme of Christmas. However, while that theme permeates all the choices i’ve made, the result is quite far from the kind of conventional upbeat playlist we’re using to hearing this time of year. i haven’t in any way set out be deliberately contrary, still less put something together that’s sarcastic or ‘alt Christmas’, but i’m conscious that this is a distinctly subdued and contemplative mixtape (something i’ve reflected in the cover artwork). Like compositions, mixtapes are very personal things, and i guess this collection of music is just what i particularly wanted to be spending time with at the moment.

No need for a breakdown of what’s included this time, i think the music pretty much speaks for itself. 60 minutes of mysterious, melancholic and magical music to provide perhaps a darker, deeper hue for the festive season. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded using the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

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‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

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A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

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This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons andamp; Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian andamp; the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.

Vine chose Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy andamp; loss, andamp; confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” andamp; “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh andamp; agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James Long, Matthew Martin, William Whitehead

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Yesterday’s broadcast of the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College, Cambridge (which, strangely, actually took place a week ago), once again included several pieces of more recent music.

The newly commissioned piece came from a composer i’ve not heard of, James Long. Long’s anthem, Vigilate, weaves together words from the Biblical books of Mark andamp; Revelation to arrive at a text that, in a nutshell, backs up its titular imperative—“watch!”—with an emphatic “or else”. The music is fairly standard-issue new choral music, yet it’s not without some telling moments; the opening andamp; closing stanzas perhaps punch hardest, andamp; while Long’s use of snatches of Latin to echo the English is odd, the appearance of “gallicantu” (“cock’s crow”) is nicely judged. The middle stanzas lose their way somewhat, getting bogged down in the words, but the conclusion of “and every eye shall see him, And they also which pierced him”, where the men’s voices are abruptly silenced to leave just the trebles, is very striking.
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Tansy Davies – Christmas Eve (World Première)

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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. Read more

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Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

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Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Messiaen on Speed (Wayne Marshall plays Dieu parmi nous)

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Seasonal favourites: Morten Lauridsen – O magnum mysterium

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The last of my seasonal favourites uses one of the oldest texts heard at Christmas. ‘O magnum mysterium’ has been used as a chant on Christmas morning for well over a millennium, and may date from as far back as the 6th century. As so many Christmas-related texts do, it explores the immense contrast of sacred and secular, here between the great mystery of God born as a human being and the fact that He lies in a manger, watched around by animals—the profound and the prosaic, cheek by jowl. Throughout the last 500 years, many composers have been drawn to this text—the settings by Palestrina, Victoria and Poulenc are among the most well-known—but the setting by Morten Lauridsen, composed in 1994, has become not only the most celebrated in recent times, but also one of the most-performed contemporary Christmas pieces of the last two decades. One doesn’t need to listen to much of Lauridsen’s music to realise that he has a decidedly single-minded approach to composition. Lauridsen has, it seems, little time or interest in the drama and dissonance of life, opting instead for untroubled subject matter and an indefatigably tonal palette. Heard in large quantities, i find Lauridsen’s music to be both stifling and disingenuous; but taken in small doses, as in O magnum mysterium, there’s much that rings true, much to celebrate. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

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One of the composers most strongly associated with this time of year is Michael Praetorius. His music dates from the early 17th century, and he is particularly well-known for his prolific treatments of Protestant hymns and songs. He harmonised numerous Christmas carols too, and there’s a kind of bold swagger to Praetorius’ approach that has no doubt helped to keep his music so beloved and oft-performed down the centuries. Composers have frequently arranged Praetorius’ music, and my fifth seasonal favourite is an impressive reimagining of one of the carols most associated with Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Swedish composer Jan Sandström will perhaps forever be known best for his wild and wonderful Motorbike Concerto, but his reworking of Praetorius’ material, known by its Swedish name Det är en ros utsprungen, is no less impressive. Composed in 1990, Sandström divides the singers into two choirs and then sets to work, seemingly stretching the original to infinity. Surrounded by voices that are static, Praetorius’ chords steadily make progress through what quickly becomes a vast ambient soup, a mystical cloud of notes hovering at the boundary between familiarity and strangeness. i wonder whether Sandström was influenced by the resurgence of ambient music that began in 1990, but regardless, the soundworld of his setting remains current, even prescient (today, bedroom composers would simply put Praetorius’ original through sound-stretching software for not dissimilar results). In such a highly immersive and intense atmosphere as this, the temptation is to linger, but Sandström bravely restricts himself to just one of the carol’s three verses; admittedly, its four-minute duration never feels enough, but each one of those minutes restores a badly-needed sense of wonder back to Christmas choral music. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Kenneth Leighton – Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child

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As the text in Paul Edwards’ No Small Wonder intimates, there’s more to the Christmas story than just stables, angels and presents, and perhaps the best-known carol to tap into the dark side of the narrative is “Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child”, often referred to by its nickname, the Coventry Carol. It originates in the city’s renowned mystery plays, from the section that would have been performed on the feast of Corpus Christi by its sartorial tradespeople. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors focused on one of the New Testament’s blackest episodes, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem, with the aim of killing the child claimed by the Magi to be the prophesied ‘King of the Jews’. This is the ghastly subject of my fourth seasonal favourite. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Paul Edwards – No Small Wonder

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It’s a curious and rather sad phenomenon that the majority of carols being composed in recent times don’t really have much to do with congregations. For the most part, composers these days write for the choir rather than the flock, but i’m sure that many of the most popular new carols attain their popularity in part due to how ‘singable’ they seem to listeners. That can’t always be true, of course; Judith Weir’s piece needs a choir (and a good one), but Peter Warlock’s exquisite melody would be perfectly singable by the average singer, and that’s also the case in my third seasonal favourite.

Composed in 1983, Paul Edwards‘ carol No Small Wonder has become well-known over the years, and is heard regularly today in more forward-thinking Christmas services and concerts. Like the Peter Warlock i wrote about yesterday, Edwards’ setting is focused on its melody, which is both restrained and straightforward, using simple repetitions through its first four bars, not doing anything dramatic. But again like the Warlock, it’s in the conclusion of the melody that Edwards allows himself to be more adventurous. Beginning low, an ascending sequence leads to the titular refrain, the simplicity of the tune countered by highly chromatic harmonies in the organ. The opening verse is given just to the sopranos, but the second is for the full choir unaccompanied, and Edwards cranks the chromaticism of this closing chord sequence a notch further; as the text (by Paul Wigmore) has at this point veered into darker territory—”but God gives his life on a cross”—it’s both effective and very striking. The mood brightens in the final verse, the choir beginning in unison, the organ building to a forte climax, but the text casts another shadow on the light; “and all to redeem my poor heart” sings the choir, and Edwards in response pushes this chord progression further, made more poignant by the organ once again dropping out. Despite starting relatively brightly, the sudden major key of the coda quickly solemnifies to a minor shade, providing a fittingly haunting end to what is a beautiful but bittersweet carol. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Peter Warlock (arr. Andrew Carter) – Lullaby my Jesus

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The second of my seasonal favourites is an arrangement. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is a somewhat humdrum affair, but the fifth movement, ‘Pieds-en-l’air’ (the melody of which began life in a 16th-century book of Renaissance dances), stands out for the quality of its high lyricism. Some years ago, composer Andrew Carter made this music the vehicle for a delicate Christmas text of his own devising:

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my king,
Lullaby my lording whom I sweetly sing.
Slumber softly, slumber on your mother’s arm;
She will rock you, she will keep you safe from harm.

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my son.
Lullaby my child in whom God’s will is done.
Be at peace, soft dreams beguile you as you lie;
I will rock you, I will sing a lullaby.

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Seasonal favourites: Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

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Despite being a time of year deeply entrenched in tradition (and not necessarily the worse for it), composers do from time to time bring a flash of innovation to Christmas. So, in the week leading up to the day itself, i’m going to explore a few of my seasonal favourites.

The first is Judith Weir‘s short carol Illuminare, Jerusalem, which dates from 1985. It was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for their annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and has remained a regular item in their repertoire. The work combines two of Weir’s strongest qualities, simplicity and succinctness, taking as its subject a joyous mediæval Scottish text exhorting Jerusalem to be—in every sense—illuminated by what is taking place above and around it. Anyone familiar with the language of mystery plays will recognise something similar here, and Weir emphasises the quirky contours of the text in her music. The three verses are distributed to different sections of the choir; the opening verse, announcing both star and angels, is given to the trebles; the closing verse, detailing the supplanting of Herod by the more “richtous king” falls to the men alone. They’re combined in the central verse that delightfully describes the Magi as “Thre kingis of strenge regionis to thee ar cumin with lusty rout”—i doubt Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar have ever been depicted quite like that before. Each of these verses follows a similar pattern, a triplet-laden melody that begins low and gradually rises to a climax; but what follows is a stroke of genius. The refrain “Illuminare Jerusalem” is sung softly but pointedly, the second word drawn out, but the first delivered staccato and momentarily underpinned by deep organ pedal notes. It’s a totally unexpected way to set such a word, but it’s a compositional triumph, lending a weird and unsettling numinosity to the refrain, perfectly capturing the sentiments its ancient words are seeking to convey. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Annunciation (World Première)

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Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and with it comes the first carol service of the new Church year, once again from St John’s College, Cambridge.

This year’s newly-commissioned carol came from Jonathan Harvey, who explored the Annunciation through words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. It’s a stunning text, and Harvey clothes it in an emphatically melodic music, passing it between solo voices, creating an intimate effect. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Jan Sandström, June Nixon, Judith Weir, Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première) & Marcel Dupré

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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

As is the custom on 5:4, here are highlights from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which took place on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Day broadcast is always preferable, as it includes the final organ voluntaries.

In a delicious repeat from last year, is Jan Sandström‘s gorgeously dreamy rendering of Det är en ros utsprungen; Praetorius’ original music is practically unrecognisable, but when the result is as rapturously beautiful as this, who cares? Pieces like this prove best how good the King’s College choir really is, negotiating their way through the dense shifting clouds of notes apparently effortlessly.

The occasion continues to be staunchly male-dominated, so it’s refreshing and badly-needed to hear an arrangement by June Nixon (a name probably unfamiliar to many; she is in fact a well-known organist in her native Australia). Her setting of The holly and the ivy, which turns it into a joyous dancing romp, is so much better than its traditional version that it deserves to be heard much, much more often. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Matthew Martin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Sven-Erik Bäck, Roxanna Panufnik – The Call (World Première) & Christopher Robinson

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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. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Mack Wilberg, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jan Sandström, Gabriel Jackson – The Christ Child (World Première) & George Baker

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A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!. In celebration of today, and continuing the tradition started here on 5:4 last year, here are highlights from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge; the recording is of today’s repeat broadcast, which includes both of the final organ voluntaries. This year particular homage was paid to Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 this month, with numerous settings and arrangements of his included in the service.

Near the start, a beautifully light and playful rendition of Ding! Dong! Merrily on high, splendidly arranged by the American Mack Wilberg; the ending has a distinct glint in its eye. Peter Maxwell DaviesOne star, at last was commissioned for the service 25 years ago, and returns sounding as fresh as ever. Max’s rendering of George Mackay Brown’s words is deeply thoughtful, tapping into both the awe and mystery as well as the more ominous elements at its heart; the question “What hand / Will take the branch from the dove’s beak?” is arguably more pertinent today than at the time of this carol’s prèmiere.

The Swede Jan Sandström (who famously studied with, among others, Brian Ferneyhough) is represented here in a hypnotic setting of the traditional German carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, sung here in Sandström’s native tongue; Prætorius’ original music is turned into clouds of notes shifting in space, finally coalescing into words—it’s a mesmerising performance. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Michael Finnissy & Arvo Pärt

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The liturgical year began in earnest on Sunday, the Advent clock once again beginning the countdown to Christ’s (first and/or second, depending on your eschatological mindset) coming. Here, then, a couple of days late (due to personal circumstances, including, in reverse order, a world première in Birmingham and a car crash in Bicester) are highlights from the Advent Carol Service, broadcast, as last year, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It would be nice to think they choose St John’s as John the apostle’s writings are so significant and, indeed, drawn upon during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it may simply be accidental; either way, St John’s continues to be one of the finest choirs in the land. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Lennox Berkeley & Judith Weir

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS!. To celebrate the feast, here’s a selection from the renowned Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge.

After the fifth lesson came I sing of a maiden by Lennox Berkeley, a sublime creation, its ostensible simplicity containing some lovely harmonic piquancy. Berkeley was the first composer to be commissioned to write a new anthem for this service, back in the early 1980s, beginning an admirable tradition of commissioning a new work each year. Read more

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