christmas

London Choral Sinfonia – O Holy Night

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Thematic series | Leave a comment

The solstice and the season of winter are fast approaching, so over the next week as we transition through i’m going to explore music that taps into some of the aspects of this remarkable time of year. By that i don’t just mean ‘Christmas music’ – which, let’s face it, is rarely something to get excited about these days – but also works that speak of cold, darkness and the ever more encroaching presence of the night.

To start, though, i am turning to music celebrating Christmas, in order to flag up a new disc called O Holy Night performed by London Choral Sinfonia. From the perspective of contemporary music, Christmas is seriously troublesome in the way it so often leads composers down over-trodden paths towards tradition, banality and cliché. It’s refreshing, then, to find a sprinkling of contemporary pieces on this disc that offer a little more than that. To be clear, O Holy Night doesn’t just feature contemporary music – the album is clearly designed to emulate a conventional Anglican carol service, including a number of exceedingly well-worn hymns and carols that act as structural points of familiarity and repose in between some of the more adventurous music. There’s not a great deal to say about these except that the choir, conducted by Michael Waldron, gives them all the most lusty treatment, at times singing with such overblown heartiness you can’t help wondering if copious quaffings of mulled wine took place before rather than after the performance. Read more

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Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

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

In many of the hymns and carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables and shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary and Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—and she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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