Tuesday 24 December 2013

Welcome All Wonders

David Bednall: Welcome all Wonders - Signum Records
David Bednall's Welcome all Wonders is a Christmas cantata for choir, organ and solo trumpet, relaying the Christmas story through a varied selection of texts both sacred and secular. The cantata was commissioned by the Queen's College, Oxford in 2011 and here recorded by the choir of the Queen's College, Oxford, director Owen Rees, trumpeter Simon Desbruslais and organists Olivia Clarke and Paul Manley.

In his programme note in the Cd booklet, Bednall talks about how the work was designed to be accessible, but not without challenges, and useful. So that each movement is complete in itself and can stand alone as an anthem. Bednall's choice of texts is imaginatively varied, with texts by Alexander Pope, Dora Greenwell (1821 - 1882), Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861 - 1902), Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748), John Milton (1608 - 1674), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1883), Prudentius, Christina Rosetti (1830 - 1894), as well as biblical texts from liturgies both Roman Catholic and Orthodox.

Because of the well known nature of the story, Bednall has chosen not to knit these diverse elements together with a recitative. There is not Evangelist figure, no narration. This is, I think, a mistake. No matter how well known the story the narration would help to bind the work together. As it is, there is a danger that it turns into simply a sequence of well-made anthems.

Bednall's musical style here is relatively conservative, Howells and RVW seem to be models, but he also folds in chant as well as moments of harmonic spice. Overall the music is approachable and personable.

The work starts with a dramatic prelude for organ and trumpet, introducing us to Bednall's rather seductive sound world with a superb use of trumpet throughout. The second movement is an alleluia, an extended setting on the single word, full of an appealing rhythmic and given a vibrant performance by the choir. A virgin shall conceive is not a setting of the gospel text, but of text from Alexander Pope's The Messiah: A Sacred Eclogue. Bednall creates a very appealing texture from his choir, organ and trumpet forces, again with a lively rhythmic vitality. The movement is very akin to an anthem, and would work well alone.

Ye heavens! from high the dewy nectar pour sets more from Pope, with a passage based on the Rorate Coeli, here given a quiet close harmony feel with a lovely soprano solo from Jessica Hughes. The text of Today is the beginning of our salvation comes from the Orthodox Liturgy. It starts with a flexible chant like setting for upper voices, which develops a lovely radiance in the middle section. There is a nicely focussed solo from Esther Mallett.

We then move to the secular realm for Oh! little blade of grass, a deceptively dark poem by Dora Greenwell, which Bednall sets with dense Howells like harmonies, rendered with nice intensity by the choir. Journey to Bethlehem sets the Christmas Magnificat Antiphon, a hauntingly intense movement with distinct hints of RVW.

I saw a stable sets a short poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, a simple chorale like movement. Isaac Watts Shepherds, rejoice! receives a lively and rhythmically vivid performance with Bednall's setting full of catchy rhythms.

For See how from far, upon the eastern road we turn to Milton describing the Magi, which Bednall gives as an English anthem using the trumpet to provide interesting textures. Tribus miraculis ornatum uses texts from the Magnificat Antiphon for Epiphany and from the Psalms to further honour the Magi. Bednall's setting is quiet but lively with some very intent rhythms.

The Slaughter of the Innocents uses texts from Longfellow, Prudentius and Christina Rosetti. The opening section combines relatively melodic writing for the choir with rather dramatic, edgy organ writing, but the movement becomes bleakly powerful towards the end.

But peaceful was the night sets part of Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, a well made piece with simple but expressive harmonies. In what is quite a brilliant stroke, Bednall follows this with the plainchant Ave Maris Stella with each verse followed by brillinat flourishes on organ and trumpet

The final movement starts with a setting of In the beginning was the word from St. John's Gospel, but it acts as a summing up with references to the Alleluia and other movements culminating in a setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est of great rhythmic vitality.

The CD booklet includes full texts as well as an informative article from Bednall about the music.

Bednall's writing is personable, imaginative and approachable. The cantata receives a very fine performance here, with music rhythmic vitality and some lovely textures combining choir, organ and the fine trumpet playing of trumpeter Simon Desbruslais. The notes do not make it clear which of the organists Olivia Clarke and Paul Manley does what, but the organ playing is admirable.

Though there are lovely movements, and movements which work well on their own, I am unclear whether this piece works as a whole, whether the fine individual elements coalesc into something greater than the sum of their parts.

David Bednall - Welcome all Wonders (2011) [77.55]
Choir of The Queen's College, Oxford
Olivia Clarke (organ)
Paul Manley (organ)
Simon Desbruslais (trumpet)
Owen Rees (director)
Recorded in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford, 19-21 March 2012
Signum Records SIGCD335 1Cd [77.55]

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