Advent & Christmas

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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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James MacMillan, Simon Beattie, Jonathan Dove, John McCabe – The last and greatest herald (World Première) & Peter Wishart

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A new church year is upon us, and with it comes the first choral broadcast for the season of Advent. Yesterday, Radio 3 broadcast the Advent Carol Service live from the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, the choir of which has a deservedly high reputation. They’re also innovative; about 6 weeks ago, they became the first choir of this kind to make their services available as weekly webcasts; for more information go here.

The service featured several interesting contemporary pieces. James MacMillan‘s A New Song is one of his most emphatically melodious anthems; its blend of high solemnity yielding to radiance is just right for Advent. Simon Beattie‘s Advent Calendar is broadcast here for the first time; it’s an interesting piece, not entirely successful, as it lacks a clear sense of direction, but with some nicely-judged poignant harmonic writing. Jonathan Dove‘s I am the day is a simple, delicate confection with a curious patchwork quality, weaving fragments that each sound familiar yet become something new; i like it. Read more

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