Thursday 21 December 2023

The Nativity: the American choir, Voce in a sequence of carols from Patrick Hawes

Patrick Hawes: The Navity; Voce, Mark Singleton; Signum Classics

Patrick Hawes: The Nativity; Voce, Mark Singleton; Signum Classics
Reviewed 20 December 2023

Beautifully sung and finely considered, Patrick Hawes carol sequence approaches the Christmas story with reverence and an appealing melodic style

When I first interviewed composer Patrick Hawes back in 2017, he described the process of composition as a full on meeting with his Christianity, and also admitted that he found it extraordinary that composer who are not Christians made major settings of sacred texts. So, it should come as little surprise to find that, as he explains in the booklet to the latest disc of his music, Advent and Christmas have a particular meaning for him.

On this new disc, The Nativity, from the American choir Voce, artistic director Mark Singleton, on the Signum Classics label we get a sequence of carols and motets for the Christmas period. The centrepiece of the sequence is The Nativity, a cycle of six carols with new texts by Patrick Hawes' brother, Andrew, himself an Anglican priest and Andrew Hawes has provided many of the texts on the disc.

The disc is carefully planned as a coherent sequence with a distinct narrative focus, something that is not always true of carol discs. So we begin with the question, What Child is This? followed by two 15th century texts, In Bethlehem and This Endernight which set the scene, then The Nativity moves from 'The Manger', to 'The Infant', 'The Oxen', 'The Shepherds', 'The Star', and finally 'The Magi', then come three further carols, Joseph's Carol, Stil, Still the Night and Behold The King. Four Christmas motets follow, with four more general pieces making up the collection.

Based in New England, Voce was founded by Mark Singleton in 2006 and here they field an ensemble of 23 singers (with women altos). I would describe the choir's approach to Patrick Hawes' music as hushed intimacy. Singleton and his singers do not aim for a big tone, instead approaching the music with a sense of reverence allied to great beauty of tone and fine shaping of phrases. Hawes' settings often take great care with the words, homophony occurs a lot, but sometimes you have to check the printed texts as Singleton seems to prize line and beauty over sheer clarity.

Hawes wrote The Nativity to function as a concert sequence, but also so that individual carols could be used separately. As such, he has taken care with the different speeds and textures, so that some are hushed and intimate whilst other are more mobile. The result has a seriousness and coherence sometimes lacking in carols and by using Andrew Hawes' intelligent modern words we avoid the embarassment of modern settings of ye olde Englishe.

His four Christmas Motets are clearly in the composer's own voice, each beautifully crafted and the four carefully contrasted to create a satisfying whole, slow, fast, slow, fast.

Most of the disc is unaccompanied with just occasional use of the organ to provide a different texture, and difference also comes from Joseph's Carol, sung just by the men's voices and with its heavy admixture of plainchant-inflected music. Occasionally, when listening to the disc you sense the influence of music of the past on Hawes, the feeling that he is paying a nod to other 20th-century styles. The disc ends with more of a Christmas song, the beautifully lyrical The Colours of Christmas with a piano accompaniment from Patrick Hawes himself that almost takes us into the world of the worship song.

I have to confess that though these performances are fine indeed, I did wonder what The Nativity sequence might have sounded like sung with less reverence, a more active and vigorous approach that gave the words primacy.

Patrick Hawes (born 1958) - What Child is This?
Patrick Hawes - In Bethlehem, That Noble Place
Patrick Hawes - This Endernight
Patrick Hawes - The Nativity
Patrick Hawes - Joseph's Carol
Patrick Hawes - Still, Still the Night
Patrick Hawes - Behold The King
Patrick Hawes - Four Christmas Motets
Patrick Hawes - The Heart of Mary
Patrick Hawes - Minstrels
Patrick Hawes - Lullay My Liking
Patrick Hawes - The Colours of Christmas
Mark Singleton (conductor)
Stephen Scarlato (organ)
Patrick Hawes (piano)
Recorded at Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford, CT, USA, 20-22 January 2023

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