Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Seasonal | 1 Comment

‘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): Lennox Berkeley & Judith Weir

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières, Seasonal | 7 Comments

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières, Seasonal | 3 Comments

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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Music for Ascension Day: Patrick Gowers – Viri Galilaei

Posted on by 5:4 in Seasonal | 3 Comments

Forty days after Easter, today marks the Feast of the Ascension. Despite being one of the four ‘pillars’ of the Church’s liturgical calendar (along with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), this feast has never attracted composers quite as much as the others. i imagine it’s a combination of the relatively short shrift given to it in the Gospels, as well as—dare i say it—the slightly comic idea of Christ ascending into the clouds (there’s a well-known painting of this scene (i forget which), with Christ’s feet hilariously protruding from the base of a cloud). It’s no doubt the lack of alternative material that has led to Gerald Finzi‘s God is gone up becoming the sine qua non on this particular day. Not that that should take anything away from Finzi’s piece; it’s superb, and contains some of the most exquisite words ever set to music:

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphicwise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

Read more


Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | Leave a comment

If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and—more importantly—the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more


Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | Leave a comment

i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional, because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck—or is deliberately kept—in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or—despite my reservations—when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Belgian composer Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir. Read more

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