winter breviary RES10328

A Winter Breviary – Choral Works for Christmas
St Martin’s Voices/Andrew Earis
Polina Sosnina (organ); Elizabeth Bass (harp)
rec. 2023, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Texts included
Resonus Classics RES10328 [66]

St Martin’s Voices is a small choir (3/2/2/3) of singers who are described as “the flagship professional choral ensemble” of London’s famous St Martin-in-the-Fields church. They give concerts at the church – and more widely – and sing at special services there. To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I’ve encountered them on disc though I have heard them sing during some broadcasts from St Martin-in-the-Fields. For this album they’ve compiled a programme of Christmas pieces by living composers; virtually all the music was new to me. I presume that all the repertoire is here recorded for the first time.

The only piece which I can say with any degree of certainty that I’ve previously heard is Cecilia McDowall’s There is no rose. That’s because it was commissioned for the 2021 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, a service to which I listen every year. In this piece, McDowall shows her customary expertise in setting texts for choirs. As Sarah Maxted justly observes in her notes, the music “creates an atmosphere of spaciousness and awe”. An important element n the establishment of that ambience is, I think, McDowall’s use of dissonances and bare, austere harmonies through which, to my ears at least, she imparts a medieval quality to her music. There’s a similar medieval feel to the preceding piece, Olivia Sparkhall’s All and some. Here, the use of compound time, and the rhythmic precision of the singers, makes the music dance. It’s an excellent opener to the programme.

In Advent Calendar Nils Greenhow sets a fine and thoughtful text by the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I learned from the notes that the piece was composed for a 2018 BBC broadcast by St Martin’s Voices. I admired the sensitivity of Greenhow’s response to the text. Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Love is the Answer is very different. For a start, whereas much of the music in the programme is for unaccompanied choir, Hewitt Jones’ piece has an organ accompaniment. The words are his own and the setting is essentially strophic. The music, and the sentiment of the words, have a warmth such as one associates with John Rutter or Bob Chilcott (I mean that as a compliment). I think it’s relevant to note that Hewitt Jones conceived the piece as a kind of antidote to the stresses imposed by Covid lockdowns.

Yshani Perinpanayagam sets her own words in When God made Eve. To paraphrase Sarah Maxted’s description, the text explores the idea of lineage between Eve and Mary, the Mother of God. I find that both words and music compel attention. Roderick Williams was commissioned to write for Winchester Cathedral what became Queen Elizabeth’s Winchester Carol to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. He selected verses by King Henry VIII which are based on the image of the evergreen holly. The melodic base of this piece is strong and Williams clothes the melody in intriguing close harmonies. There’s some florid solo writing in the final verse, which provides additional interest.

The remaining items on the programme are contained in four carol collections. Lucy Walker has recently been appointed Composer in Residence to St Martin’s Voices; The Christmas Life was composed specially for this CD. This excellent triptych of Christmas pieces sets words by different writers. ‘The Christmas Life’ portrays the warmth of Christmas at home, but not in a saccharine fashion. ‘The Angels’ Song’, which concludes the set is joyful and full of good cheer. Ther ending made me smile – I won’t spoil the surprise. In between comes ‘We shall walk’, which I think is the best of all. The words are about walking in snow. Walker’s tranquil music is very beautiful; the basic melody is lovely and it is harmonised in a very imaginative way. I enjoyed The Christmas Life very much.

The concept of A Winter Breviary by the American composer, Reena Esmail presents an intriguing fusion of the Christian liturgical tradition and Indian classical music. The work’s three movements correspond to the Offices of Evensong, Matins and Lauds. Ms Esmail has, as Sarah Maxted puts it, “[interwoven] three classical Raags which chart those same hours from dusk to dawn”. The Raags are specifically named in the notes but I’m afraid Indian music has always been a closed book to me so I can’t really judge the extent to what we hear is the composer’s gloss on the traditional music. Reena Esmail has set texts by the American poet, Rebecca Gayle Howell (b 1975). Unfortunately, the texts are not printed in the booklet, presumably for copyright reasons. So, I was not really in a position fully to judge the musical response to the words. That said, Sarah Maxted gives a succinct summary of what each text is about; that helps. What I will say is that I liked what I heard; A Winter Breviary is most attractive.

A similar difficulty arises in appreciating to the full Sarah MacDonald’s The Manger is Empty. She has set three poems by R S Thomas (1913-2000) but, once again, the texts are not printed and we have to rely on the summaries by Sarah Maxted and the clear diction of the singers. ‘Like the snow in winter’ creates a sense of Winter mystery. ‘As among broken glass’ is much more animated. Here, the music is impelled forward on compound-time rhythms. I agree with the description in the notes; the result is “sparkling and playful”. The final panel in the triptych is ‘The manger is empty’. Sarah Maxted draws a useful parallel with the Coventry Carol and rightly describes the piece as a “wistful lullaby”. St Martin’s Voices give a poised performance of this set of pieces which impress with their gentle eloquence.

The final item in the programme is the longest, playing for some 20 minutes. Bob Chilcott’s Mary, Mother, a set of six numbers, was premiered by St Martin’s Voices in December 2022 and I infer it was written for them. The work is scored for SATB choir with an accompaniment of harp and organ. For his libretto Chilcott turned to the writer Georgia Way (b 1992). The texts, as printed in the booklet, bear the collective title The Sycamore Carols. The sycamore tree plays a significant role in the story, which follows Mary from her childhood through to the birth of her son in Bethlehem. (Would I be fanciful in thinking that, though it’s never stated, there is the implication that this type of tree – or a tree – will figure in the story again, this time on Calvary?) All of the individual pieces display Chilcott’s trademark melodiousness and attractive harmonic language. ‘Carpentry Carol’, for example, portrays Mary’s youthful happiness very successfully. By contrast, ‘After the angel’ is tender and thoughtful. ‘Dear heart’ is a gentle lullaby which Mary sings to her new-born son. The last piece is ‘Hymn’. In recent years, Bob Chilcott has incorporated into at least two of his choral works (St John Passion (2013) and Christmas Oratorio (2019)) hymns in which the audience/congregation can join. Usually, he has taken the words of traditional hymns and set them to eminently singable original tunes, but here the words are by Georgia Way. On this occasion, only the ten voices of St Martin’s Voices sing the hymn but I can imagine audiences joining in with a will in live performances. It’s a good end to a most appealing work.

This is a stimulating collection of new Christmas music, all of it immaculately performed by St Martin’s Voices. The singers make a clear, fresh sound. Ensemble is flawless, as is the blending of the voices. Clearly, the group has been very well trained by their director, Andrew Earis; I enjoyed every aspect of their singing. The contributions of organist Polina Sosnina and harpist Elizabeth Bass are excellent.

Producer/engineer Adam Binks has recorded the performances in clean, clear and well-balanced sound. When one is approaching new music it’s important that the notes offer a good guide to what one is about to hear; Sarah Maxted’s stylishly written essay could not be better.

For anyone looking for an enterprising and rewarding disc of Christmas music and willing to venture beyond the tried and trusted repertoire, this CD could be just the ticket.

John Quinn

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Olivia Sparkhall (b.1976)
All and some
Cecilia McDowall (b.1951)
There is no rose
Reena Esmail (b.1983)
A Winter Breviary
We Look For You
(Evensong – Raag Hamsadhwani)
The Year’s Midnight
(Matins – Raag Malkauns)
The Unexpected Early Hour
(Lauds – Raag Ahir Bhairav)
Sarah MacDonald (b.1968)
The Manger is Empty
Like the snow in winter
As among broken glass
The manger is empty
Nils Greenhow (b.1989)
Advent Calendar
Thomas Hewitt Jones (b.1984)
Love is the Answer
Lucy Walker (b.1998)
The Christmas Life
The Christmas Life
We shall walk
The Angels’ Song
Yshani Perinpanayagam (b.1983)
When God made Eve
Roderick Williams (b.1965)
Queen Elizabeth’s Winchester Carol (The Royal Carol)
Bob Chilcott (b.1955)
Mary, Mother
A child in Galilee
Carpentry Carol
After the angel
Walking Carol
Dear heart

All world premiere recordings