Friday 16 December 2022

20 Christmas pieces by 19 women composers from the 20th and 21st centuries: Somerville College Choir's The Dawn of Grace

The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas: Somerville College Choir, Oxford, Will Dawes, Luca Morgante; RESONUS
The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas: Somerville College Choir, Oxford, Will Dawes, Luca Morgante; RESONUS
Reviewed 15 December 2022 (★★★★)

An imaginative Christmas programme that features 20 pieces by 19 women contemporary composers woven into a satisfying recital by the young voices from Somerville College

Somerville College, Oxford was founded in 1879 in order to give women and non-conformists the ability to come to Oxford to study, and the college choir sings in the only non-denominational college chapel in Oxford. So, what to record for the choir's first Christmas album. The answer is a disc of contemporary carols and Christmas music by 19 female composers, including eleven world premiere recordings.

The result, on Resonus Classics, is The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas from Somerville College Choir, Oxford and conductor Will Dawes, with organist/pianist Luca Morgante, with music by Cecilia McDowall, Abbie Betinis, Anna Semple, Pamela Decker, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Kerensa Briggs, Sarah Cattley, Judith Bingham, Joanna Marsh, Errollyn Wallen, Yshani Perinpanayagam, Shruthi Rajasekar, Sarah Quartel, Jeanne Demessieux, Tamsin Jones, Judith Weir, Janet Wheeler, June Nixon, and Ghislaine Reece-Trapp. Apart from Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968), all living composers with birth years ranging from 1942 to 1997.

Well-known tunes feature in some arrangements, but mainly the disc is about new classics. The approaches are largely tonal and traditional, but within these, there is a lot of imagination being brought to bear, and many of the pieces show great ingenuity in the ability to vary the textures.

We begin with Cecilia McDowall, a composer who never fails to bring skill and imagination into her music; not for nothing are her pieces deservedly popular with singers. Here the quietly intimate O Oriens uses the harmonies to make the music seem as if drifting in and out of focus. Abbie Betinis' Behind the clouds begins with a solo soprano singing an evocative, angular melody, first alone then, with discreet choral backing, and gradually the choral contribution comes to the fore, creating a quietly affecting piece. Anna Semple's Drop down, ye heavens uses striking harmony featuring note clusters to create a lovely, interesting sound world. The first organ solo features Veni, veni Emmanuel in a chorale prelude by Pamela Decker where the familiar hymn tune weaves in an out of polyphonic textures.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad's There is no rose has quite a traditional feel to it, yet her idiomatic sense of harmony makes it rather distinctive. Kerensa Briggs' A tender shoot is a gentle, beautifully crafted piece with a nice element of spice to the harmony. Sarah Cattley's Ivy, chief of trees uses the choir for the refrain with a series of imaginative solos and duets for the verses, all using a rather folk-inspired melody. Judith Bingham's organ work, The Dawn of Redeeming Grace starts quietly intimate but then she introduces Silent Night to distinctive effect.

Joanna Marsh's quietly intense O magnum mysterium uses bitter-sweet harmonies to rich effect. Errollyn Wallen's Peace on Earth (using the composer's own text) begins just with a solo soprano and piano, with Wallen creating a haunting sound-world with the piano almost harp-like in its effect. Later the solo blossoms into unison sopranos, but this is a piece built around the idea of that lovely soprano line. Yshani Perinpanayagam's In Bethlehem Above is quite a traditional-sounding piece, yet her creative use of the vocal forces creates some varied textures. Sarah Quartel's This Endris Night is a quietly intense piece with some lovely spicy harmonies. Star of Rohini by Shruthi Rajasekar uses text that mixes St Matthew's Gospel with a Hindu sacred text with a lovely folk-ish melody and bells! Jeanne Demessieux's Adeste Fideles is explicitly an organ choral-prelude, with the carol tune in quite a distinct version weaving through striking organ textures.

There is an ancient and modern feel to Tamsin Jones' joyful Noel: Verbum caro factum est, with alternating solos and chorus. For My Guardian Angel, Judith Weir sets a poem by William Blake. At first, simply a chant-like line, to which layers are added creating a sense of texture building up. This is a wonderfully engaging piece that really draws you in. For Ding Dong Diggety, Janet Wheeler creates a gloriously jazzy version of the well-known carol, whilst The Holly and The Ivy, for choir and organ, uses a less usual traditional tune in a lovely arrangement by June Nixon. Ghislaine Reece-Trapp uses a lovely melody and some jazzy rhythms to great effect in Alleluia! A new world come at hand.

Finally, we return to Cecilia McDowall, for Gaudete et laetare for choir and organ; more jazzy rhythms, great textures and a lovely sense of everyone having fun.

Will Dawes and Somerville College Choir at a recording session in the chapel of Exeter College
Will Dawes and Somerville College Choir at a recording session in the chapel of Exeter College

Throughout the choir sings with poise, creating a lovely focused sound, often with great transparency. The disc is organised into thematic sections, the build-up to Christmas, Jesus' birth and the ensuing celebrations, but it can easily be enjoyed as a single whole and Dawes' choice of repertoire and juxtapositions ensure that this is an engaging recital rather than a disc to be dipped into.

Cecilia McDowall (b.1951) - O Oriens
Abbie Betinis (b.1980) - Behind the clouds
Anna Semple (b.1997) - Drop down, ye heavens
Pamela Decker (b.1955) - Veni, veni Emmanuel
Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) - There is no rose
Kerensa Briggs (b.1991) - A tender shoot
Sarah Catley (b.1995) - Ivy, chief of trees
Judith Bingham (b.1952) - The Dawn of Redeeming Grace
Joanna Marsh (b.1970) - O magnum mysterium
Errolyn Wallen (b.1958) - Peace On Earth
Yshani Perinpanayagam (b.1983) - In Bethlehem above
Shruthi Rajasekar (b.1996) - Star of Rohini
Sarah Quartel (b.1982) - This endris night
Jeanne Demessieux (1921–68) - Adeste fideles (from Twelve Choral-Preludes on Gregorian Chant Themes,Op. 8, No.2)
Tamsin Jones (b.1972) - Noel: Verbum caro factum est
Judith Weir (b. 1954) - My Guardian Angel
Anonymous. French 16th century, arr. Janet Wheeler (b.1957) - Ding Dong Diggety!
Anonymous, tradi􀆟onal, arr. June Nixon (b.1942) - The holly and the ivy
Ghislaine Reece-Trapp (b.1992) - Alleluia! A New Work is Come on Hand
Cecilia McDowall - Gaude et laetare
Somerville College Choir, Oxford
Luca Morgante (organ and piano)
Will Dawes (conductor)
Recorded in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, 22-24 June 2022

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