Choir of Clare College Celebrates Epiphany (CD Review)

Mater ora fillium: Music for Epiphany

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Michael Papadopoulos, organ; Graham Ross, director

Harmonia Mundi CD HUM907653

On the Christian calendar, tomorrow (January 6th) is the Feast of the Epiphany. There are several aspects to Epiphany. First, it is the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, and so ends the celebrations of that merry season. Second, it is the commemoration of Jesus the Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Finally, in the spirit of ending a party with a magnificent and mysterious flourish, it is also commemorates the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

It is this third aspect of Epiphany that has most often drawn composers to create music commemorating the festival. On the Harmonia Mundi CD Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany, Graham Ross presents a program of primarily sixteenth and twentieth century selections. It is Ross’s seventh such recording for HM that is based around one of the events or seasons on the liturgical calendar. Here the interested believer may find much music that, in addition to being entertaining, informs them about the history of the liturgy. However, Christian and secularist alike can enjoy the high level of musicality and sheer beauty of the voices of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

The hymn singing alone, accompanied with rousing verve by organist Michael Papadopoulos, is remarkable. It includes favorites like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” as well as a lovely rendition of “O worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness!” Renaissance era motets are well represented. Omnes de Saba by Orlande de Lassus is a particularly jubilant album opener. Purity of tone from sopranos and sepulchral notes from basses are on display, and carefully balanced, in Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. Clarity of contrapuntal lines feature in Clemens non Papa’s Magi veniunt ab oriente and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum. The varied tone colors brought to bear in William Byrd’s Ecce advenit dominator Dominus provide a sense of mysterious grandeur appropriate to the festival. Careful tuning of cross relations, as well as seamless alternation between the rhythms of chant and polyphony, supplies listeners to John Sheppard’s Regis Tharsis with a particularly evocative glimpse into another era’s harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.

Balancing the early music selections are a number of fine pieces from the twentieth century. A standout is Long, Long Ago by Herbert Howells; an initially tender melody gradually rises to an exciting climax, juxtaposed with a steady buildup of added note chords. Another is Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock, in which an intricate swath of modal melodies is set against strongly articulated tutti chords. Despite the considerable challenges it poses, Illuminare, Jerusalem, by Judith Weir, is taken at a spirited gallop. Judith Bingham’s alluring Epiphany pits a colorful organ part against sinuous vocal chromaticism. Lennox Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is delivered with haunting delicacy. All of this is capped off by the large-scale title work, a tour de force of choral writing by Arnold Bax.

Impressive performances throughout, combined with thoughtful programming, makes Mater ora filium the ideal recording for Twelfth Night!

Bach Christmas Oratorio – the Dunedin Consort

J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.

Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)

First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiah has most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. 

The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).

Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).

Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.

This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.

 

Low – “Some Hearts (At Christmastime)”

low-photo-zoran-orlic
Low. Photo: Zoran Orlic

 

A new Christmas song from our favorite slowcore Mormons:

 

 

“To friends who have moved away and friends who have passed on this year. To one and all, especially those who are alone, we wish you a Merry Christmas and new hope for the new year. May we all find ways to lift each other.

With love,

Mimi, Alan and Steve.”

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Low records for Sub Pop.

Sing Thee Nowell – Perfect Stocking Stuffer

Congratulations to New York Polyphony for receiving their second Grammy nomination for a Christmas CD, Sing Thee Nowell (BIS). It includes pieces from the Renaissance, traditional holiday classics, and new compositions by Andrew Smith, John Scott, and Michael McGlynn. Like all of their previous CDs, the programmed works are superlatively performed and thoughtfully interpreted. Last minute holiday shoppers take note!