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"Sacred Treasures of Christmas"

The London Oratory Schola Cantorum
Dir: Charles Cole

rec: March 16, 19 & 20, 2020, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Hyperion - CDA68358 (© 2020) (76'30")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (c1510/15-1555/6): Magi veniunt ab oriente; Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/7-1612): O magnum mysterium; Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Pastores loquebantur; Hans Leo HASSLER (1562-1612): Verbum caro factum est; Orlandus LASSUS (1530/32-1594): Omnes de Saba; Resonet in laudibus; Jean MOUTON (bef. 1459-1522): Nesciens mater; Giovanni Maria NANINO (1543/4-1607): Diffusa est gratia; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594): Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem; plainchant: Alleluia Dies sanctificatus; Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Puer natus in Bethlehem; John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558): Reges Tharsis et insulae; Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Hodie Christus natus est; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): Videte miraculum; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Alma redemptoris mater; O magnum mysterium

Every year a number of Christmas discs are released. The repertoire varies from very old and traditional to contemporary, from carols and popular Christmas songs, often in all kinds of arrangements, to baroque oratorios and cantatas as well as renaissance polyphony. The latter is the subject of the present disc. If one would like to add some little-known stuff to one's collection, one better avoids this disc. Most pieces are pretty familiar, and are available on other discs. What is different here is that the choir consists of boys and men. Such choirs are still common in Britain, but in the last twenty years or so, more and more choirs have opened the gates to girls. Sometimes they sing separately, but often they are mixed with the boys. This may be understandable from the angle of equal chances, but this also unmistakably results in a change of sound. Lovers of the traditional British choir of boys and men will be delighted to see one of them presenting itself in such fine fashion as is the case here.

The programme is divided into three sections. The first, and by far the largest, is 'Christmas'. It opens with one of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck's best-known motets, Hodie Christus natus est. It is part of a collection of motets which was published with a basso continuo part. However, it is very likely that Sweelinck added this part at the request of the publisher. It is even possible that it was written by someone else. It is therefore perfectly legitimate, even recommendable, to omit it, as is the case here. Sweelinck can be considered one of the last representatives of the stile antico, and that also goes for Giovanni Gabrieli, whose motet O magnum mysterium follows Sweelinck.

In this section of the programme we find some quite familiar stuff, such as Victoria's motet with the same text, and Guerrero's Pastores loquebantur. Samuel Scheidt's Puer natus in Bethlehem is another well-known piece. I was curious to hear how this motet, which stylistically belongs to the stile nuovo, was performed. I was happy to notice that it was performed differently: it is sung with less legato, and with some effective dynamic shading. It is also nice that in this section we find a motet by Hans-Leo Hassler, a German composer of the late renaissance period, who - like Schütz later - went to Venice to study the newest trends in music. His oeuvre is hardly known, and every recording of his music is very welcome.

The second section is entitled 'Epiphany'. It comprises four motets, and it is nice that the pieces are by composers from different parts of Europe. Palestrina is one of the last exponents of the strict stile antico, whereas Orlandus Lassus, working in Germany, in his music points in the direction of the new style, especially with regard to the connection between text and music. Jacobus Clemens non Papa is a representative of the Franco-Flemish school, and John Sheppard represents the glory of traditional English polyphony, whose motet Reges Tharsis et insulae is based on plainchant.

The last two pieces are for 'Candlemas'. It is the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, for which Bach composed his famous cantata Ich habe genug. Whereas that work focuses on the meeting between Joseph and Mary with their son on the one hand, and Simeon on the other, and refers to the latter's canticle Nunc dimittis, the two motets by Tallis and Nanino are about the Virgin herself. Tallis's Videte miraculum is a mixture of plainchant and polyphony: "Behold the miracle of the Lord's mother, the Virgin conceived unacquainted with man". This statement is then repeated with other wordings. Giovanni Maria Nanino is one of the few lesser-known composers in the programme. He was of the generation after Palestrina, and stylistically he remains close to the latter. The central theme is that Mary has been blessed by God. The text specifically refers to the gifts of the three wise men, and from that perspective, this motet could also have been found its place in the 'Epiphany' section, even though liturgically it is the Offertory for the Feast of the Purification. The text is taken from Psalm 44.

The London Oratory Schola Cantorum consists here of 52 singers, among them 25 trebles. Obviously, such large choirs did not exist in the time this music was written. Only in some very large pieces, such as the famous 40-part motet Spem in alium by Tallis, such large numbers of singers were needed. From a stylistic point of view this is definitely an issue. However, it is not fair to assess a recording like this with strictly historical criteria. This recording was not made in the first place to present an 'authentic' performance of pieces of classical polyphony, but rather to give an idea of a living liturgical performance practice. One could compare this recording with those of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which records masses and motets that are part of the liturgy in the Cathedral. The choir's director, Charles Cole, states in the booklet: "Through these recordings, the Schola seeks to bring to a wider audience the music which adorns the liturgies at the London Oratory. (...) Their sacred purpose, the way they are experienced by the boys who sing them, and the manner in which they are heard at the Oratory are before all else within the liturgical context". It would have been nice if the recording had taken place in the Oratory itself, but the conditions there may not be suitable for a CD recording.

Historical considerations apart, this is a very fine disc by a choir I had never heard before, but which has quite impressed me. Despite its size, the sound is pretty transparent, enough to serve the contrapuntal texture of the motets as well as their texts. There is some effective dynamic shading, and the tempi are well chosen in relation to the acoustical circumstances.

Even if you have most of the pieces performed here in other recordings, this disc is a valuable addition to any collection of Christmas music. I have greatly enjoyed this disc, and I am sure you will enjoy it too.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

London Oratory Schola Cantorum

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