choral

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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Einojuhani Rautavaara – Vigilia

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On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.

According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. Read more

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Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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Office of Tenebrae (Westminster Cathedral)

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This afternoon’s broadcast of what is usually Choral Evensong, was fittingly transformed for Holy Week into the service of Tenebrae, from Westminster Cathedral. Tenebrae is something of a curiosity, the legacy of a rather odd Holy Week practice of transferring the usual morning offices of Matins and Lauds to the evening before; the practice only continues today, if at all, on Wednesday, thus preserving the unique liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Having experienced a service of Tenebrae myself (it was included in Tewkesbury’s Musica Deo Sacra festival a couple of years back), i can testify to its beauty, and also to its symbolic power in this most black week of the year—especially the ceremonial snuffing out of candles. It’s an extremely long service; indeed, a quick glance in my copy of the Liber Usualis reveals that the combined offices contain no fewer than 16 antiphons, 13 psalms, nine lessons, nine responsories and two canticles. Clearly, this is far too long for an hour-long broadcast (typically, it would take around three hours), so today’s service was a kind of “Diet Tenebrae”, drastically slimmed down, using a selection from the complete liturgy. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service (first broadcast)

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service, the first time they have been broadcast. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience.

This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, that begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard. Read more

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In Memoriam Michael Tippett

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Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Michael Tippett, and last week was the anniversary of his birth. To mark both occasions, here’s a collection of his music from a service of Choral Evensong that dates back to St Peter’s Day 2005, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It’s a recording i recently discovered in my archives, on a video cassette, so the quality doesn’t quite live up to the digital recordings i make today; all the same, it’s a nice clear reproduction, taken from digital radio.

Almost all the music in the service was by Tippett, beginning with his neo-renaissance motet Plebs angelica, mellifluous and texturally very thick throughout. The canticles are Tippett’s setting for St John’s College (composed in 1961 to mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the college); the Magnificat is brilliantly virile, startlingly muscular from the outset, and the Nunc dimittis is no less interesting for its relative softness, individual voices sounding stark, even vulnerable against a gentle choral backdrop, occasionally punctuated by the organ, contributing strange singular clusters. Instead of a single anthem, the choir performed no fewer than all five of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals from ‘A Child of our Time’. They’re given a thoroughly spirited performance (no pun intended), the singers quite clearly relishing the material. “Steal Away” (in my opinion the best of the five) is performed with great delicacy, and the baritone soloist is superb; and “Go down, Moses”—which, more than the others, tends to sound significantly weaker than its original orchestral version—is strikingly brought to life here, the final bars given a suitably authoritative tone. To finish, the voluntary was Tippett’s meandering, rather mundane Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi. Read more

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