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Comfort and Joy - The Saint Cecilia Singers Sing Christmas Music in Gloucester Cathedral

Comfort and Joy - The Saint Cecilia Singers Sing Christmas Music in Gloucester Cathedral

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The Saint Cecilia Singers sing Christmas Music at Gloucester Cathedral

David Bednall (organ)

The Saint Cecilia Singers, Ian Ball

The highlight of the St Cecilia Singers' year is the Christmas Concert in Gloucester Cathedral. The choir's home and principal venue since it was founded 52 years ago by Donald Hunt, then Assistant Organist, the Cathedral is a particularly magical place at Christmas. A loyal capacity audience enjoys the broadest possible repertoire, often sung from the farthest reaches of the building, adds their voices to the singing of hymns and carols, and listens to the challenging and often humourous readings which intersperse the music from choir and organ.

The music on this disc represents the breadth and variety of music featured at these popular annual concerts, and was recorded shortly after the 2000 Christmas Concert.

Gaudete! calls the people to rejoice at the birth of Christ. A lively dance with more than an air of folk music about it, this anonymous piece exists in various guises, and was made famous in the 'seventies by folk pop group Steeleye Span. It actually dates back to 1582, and is found in the collection Piae Cantiones.

The exciting expectation of Christ's coming is perfectly captured in Charles Wesley and John Cennick's hymn Lo! He comes with clouds descending. The soaring melody of Oliver's Helmsley always thrills, and is here topped by Ian Ball's descant for the final verse.

The first great flowering of the carol in England was during the late medieval period. The form used was that of alternating verses and burdens (refrains), the language usually being a mixture of Latin and English. Alma redemptoris mater is an anonymous setting by an unknown composer, here transcribed and transposed for soprano, alto and tenor solo voices. The verses tell of the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord.

The medieval carol rarely strayed far from secular dance music. Riu, riu, chui is typical of this. A villancico, first appearing in a Spanish collection of anonymous polyphonic songs published in 1556, it uses a form and style that was originally secular. Like the English carol and Italian balata it is characterised by an alternating verse/refrain pattern. The phrase 'riu, riu, chiu' was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds guarding their flocks. Baritone Brian Pursey ably negotiates the obscure medieval Spanish of the verses.

The mystery and disturbing reality of the Incarnation is beautifully summarised in Bishop Brooks's O little town of Bethlehem. Usually sung to Forest Green, it enjoys justifiable popularity. The spine-tingling last verse descant was written by Iain Simcock when he was the Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

Francis Poulenc was one of France's most important twentieth-century composers. His music has recently enjoyed re-appraisal, but it has always been popular with choirs. O Magnum Mysterium belongs to a set of four Christmas motets written in 1952. A masterpiece in miniature, O Magnum gives full opportunity for expressive, heartfelt singing. Laying aside his characteristic and quirky humour, Poulenc sets the ancient text to dark yet ravishingly beautiful music.

Ian Ball, the St Cecilia Singers' Musical Director, wrote his Magnificat as his wife was pregnant with their second child, Rebecca. The opening in particular reflects the very physical 'butterflies' a mother feels as the unborn child grows. The work reflects too the contrasts and conflicts Mary must have felt in what surely must have been a reluctant acceptance of God's will. The style is decidedly French, with whiffs of plainchant, Messiaen's Mode 2 and the obvious influences of Duruflé, Ravel and Ian's teacher Naji Hakim. The virtuosic organ part is no mere accompaniment, and stretches both instrument and organist. .....
Ian Ball, June 2001

  • anon.: Gaudete!
  • T. Oliver: Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
  • anon.: Alma Redemptoris Mater
  • Mateo Flecha: Riu, riu, riu
  • trad.: O little town of Bethlehem
  • Poulenc: O magnum mysterium (No. 1 from Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, Op.152)
  • Ball, I: Magnificat
  • Howells: A Spotless Rose
  • Howells: Sing Lullaby
  • trad.: Long the night
  • Brahms: Ave Maria
  • Lassus: Quem vidistis, pastores?
  • Mendelssohn: Hark! the herald angels sing
  • Edwards, P: No small wonder
  • Scheidt: In dulci jubilo
  • anon.: Coventry Carol
  • Howells: A Christmas Carol
  • Marks, J: Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
  • Martin, Hugh: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  • trad.: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen


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