Tuesday 17 December 2019

The Sixteen at Christmas: A Ceremony of Carols

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Britten A Ceremony of Carols, William Walton, Elizabeth Poston, Gustav Holst, Matthew Martin, Jan Sandstrom, James Burton, Cecilia McDowall, Medieval carols; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Britten's glorious carol sequence complemented by ancient and modern settings of related Medieval texts

A remarkable number of early English carols survive, giving us a window onto a form which underwent significant changes in the 19th century. And these texts have provided an endless source of inspiration to 20th century and contemporary composers as the contemporary carol has developed a lively new life. In fact, new carols were very much the thing in the first half of the 20th century, Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down (from 1927) was published by the Daily Telegraph, and William Walton's Make we joy now in this fest (from 1931) by the Daily Despatch.

Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols (from 1942) had no such direct inception, it was inspired by a book of medieval carol texts which he bought in Nova Scotia on the journey back to wartime Britain from voluntary exile in America that he and Peter Pears made in 1942, uncertain of their reception on arriving. The work is a 20th century masterpiece, but what to programme with it?

For The Sixteen at Christmas: A Ceremony of Carols at Cadogan Hall on Monday 16 December 2019, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen performed a sequence of carols (some for Christmas, some for other times of the year) all based on Medieval texts, giving us surviving Medieval carols alongside carols to Medieval texts by 20th century composers, William Walton, Elizabeth Poston, Gustav Holst, and contemporary composers Matthew Martin, Jan Sandstrom, James Burton and Cecilia McDowall, all culminating in Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, performed with harpist Frances Kelly.

We started with Walton's 1931 Make we joy now in this fest, a setting of a macaronic text which was somewhat unfamiliar, and for all its liveliness has subtle moments too.

There followed a sequence of Medieval carols, the trick with these is how to present them. Christophers chose to give the carols quite plainly without too much additional arrangement, which made them all the more effective with their bold harmonies.
Nowell, nowell: out of your sleep had the verses sung by soloists Alexandra Kidgell and George Pooley with the choir providing the choruses, all accompanied by tambourine and drum (played by choir members Charlotte Mobbs and Edward McMullan), the result was surprising and rather martial, evoking outdoor performance. Sweet was the song was given a touching performance by soprano solo Camilla Harris accompanied by Frances Kelly on a small harp. Nowell, Nowell: In Bethlem again used soloists Alexandra Kidgell and George Pooley in the verses, accompanied by harp, and what struck me was the irregularity of the music, a far cry from the regular four-square Victorian carols which are the common currency of Christmas. Joys Seven is a traditional piece also, we heard it last week in Imogen Holst's arrangement, but here it was sung by full choir, charming and very catchy.

Matthew Martin's Adam lay yboundon gave us a very modern take on an old text, slow and thoughtful with strong harmonies and a haunting end, with a fine solo from Robert Clark. Thanks to BBC Radio 3, I now know that Elizabeth Poston grew up in Rooks Nest House, where EM Forster had grown up and which formed the inspiration for Howards End (and in fact Poston wrote the music for a 1970s BBC TV adaptation of Howards End whilst living in Rooks Nest House). Jesus Christ the apple tree is one of Poston's best known pieces, here beautifully shaped with clear words. Peter Warlock's Corpus Christi was new to me, a surprisingly complex piece which set solos from Amy Carson and Steven Harrold against a wordless chorus to strong effect. Gustav Holst's This have I done for my true love was a fruit of his association with Thaxted in Essex and its vicar, Conrad Noel, who was a passionate medievalist and enthusiast for folk dancing. In fact the piece is pure Holst with no folk melody, and is rather less folksy than you might expect. A striking piece which deserves to be better known.

We ended with a further sequence of Medieval carols, There is no rose, perhaps the most familiar of them, here sung with harp and with soloists Katy Hill and George Pooley for the verses, Angelus ad virginem which was surprisingly subtle and not as vigorous as some accounts with a solo from Steven Harrold, and all the better for it, and finally Make we joy now in this fest (yes, the Walton text in its original form), with strong, bold harmonies accompanied by tambourine and drum.

Part two started with Jan Sandstrom's gloriously subtle version of Praetorius' Lo, how a rose e'er blooming, four soloists, Alexandra Kidgell, Edward McMullan, Simon Berridge and Stuart Young,  singing the carol over humming accompaniment from the choir, striking, thoughtful and perfectly lovely. James Burton is UK-born, USA-based choral conductor and his setting of Balulalow was as beautifully crafted as one might expect, with a great deal of interest in the inner parts. Cecilia McDowall's Of a Rose was full of energy thanks to the choir's attention to her uneven phrase lengths. Finally in this group, the anonymous The Salutation Carol sung by the men of the choir with soloist Robert Evans, again a lively piece and also full of uneven rhythms.

Christophers choice of works, both ancient and modern, in fact reflected the themes of Britten's A Ceremony of Carols so that we found ourselves exploring similar themes, associated texts, thus giving a nice coherence to the evening.

Though Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols in 1942, it was only in 1943 that the work achieved its present final form. Surprisingly, Britten's initial conception and the first performances was all for women's voices, but it was thanks to a series of strong performances by boys choirs in 1943 that his preference for boys developed. There is also an SATB version which seems to date from 1943, but adding male voices seems to add nothing to the work and perhaps takes something away; I am not clear whether this version was something Britten created or, more likely, a requirement from his publishers. Using adult voices, we lose the innocence of children's voices but gain richly expressive lines.

The opening Procession was sung with a strong, flexible line by the sopranos, with the full ensemble giving us a bright, up-front sound in Wolcom Yole!, uplifting indeed. There is no rose was quite dark in colour, making the most of the rich tones of the adult voices, whilst That yonge child, with a solo from Katy Hill, was haunting and perhaps slightly disturbing, again adult voices giving subtle undertones to the piece. Balulalow had a lovely clear sound with a characterful solos from Kirsty Hopkins and Charlotte Mobbs. As dew in Aprille was nicely upfront and full of striking textures, then a vivid account of This little Babe, crisp and brilliant. There was something thoughtful and austere about Frances Kelly's account of the harp interlude, and this austerity carried over into an intense In freezing winter night with Spring Carol as an excellent foil with solos in both from Charlotte Mobbs and Alexandra Kidgel. Deo gracias was strong and vivid, leading to a repeat of the opening material as the sopranos of the choir left.

The capacity audience (this was the first of two performances of the programme at Cadogan Hall) was most enthusiastic, so much so that they disregarded the request in the programme to only applaud after groups of items and in fact applauded regularly throughout the evening. A touching, if slightly annoying, testament to the choir's popularity and skill.

The Sixteen's Christmas programmes usually involve some unusually and rarely performed material, but here Harry Christophers mined contemporary fascinating with Medieval carols (both text and music) to provide an interesting complement to Britten's carol sequence, and to give us a concert full of surprises and discoveries, with not a Victorian carol in sight. Though we did have Ding, Dong merrily on high as the second encore!

Walton - Make we joy now in this fest
Medieval carols - Nowell, nowell: Out of your sleep; Sweet was the song
Traditional - Joys seven
Matthew Martin - Adam lay ybounden
Poston - Jesus Christ the apple tree
Warlock - Corpus Christi
Holst - This have I done for my true love
Medieval carols -  There is no rose; Angelus ad virginem; Make we joy
Praetorius arr. Jan Sandström Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
James Burton - Balulalow
Cecilia McDowall - Of a Rose
Anonymous - The Salutation Carol
Britten - A Ceremony of Carols

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  • On Bethlehem Down: Chamber Choir of London & Dominic Ellis-Peckham at St George's Church, Bloomsbury (★★★★) - concert review
  • Rule-breaking music that inspires you and empowers you: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and James Baillieu on CPE Bach's sonatas for violin and keyboard - interview
  • A bleakly haunted journey: Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Schubert's Winterreise at Wigmore Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Christmas CD round-up: ten recent discs, from carols old and new, to Bach, the Spanish golden age and Rick Wakeman - CD review
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