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Concert reviews

"An English Christmas"
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross; Daniel Blaze, Evie Perfect, organ
concert: Dec 19, 2023, Utrecht, Cathedral [Domkerk]

anon: Ther is no rose of swych vertu; Sally BEAMISH (*1956): In the stillness; William BYRD (c1540-1623): Lullaby, mu sweet little baby; Vigilate; Harold DARKE (1888-1976): In the bleak midwinter; Franz GRUBER (1787-1863), arr Graham ROSS (*1985): Silent Night; Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983): A Spotless Rose; CristóbL DE MORALES (c1500-1553): O magnum mysterium; Jean MOUTON (bef. 1459-1522): Nesciens mater; Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Magnificat 5. toni; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Quem pastores laudavere; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Michael PRAETORIUS, arr Jan SANDSTRÖM (*1954); Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; Michael PRAETORIUS, arr ?Melchior VULPIUS (1570-1615): Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; trad, arr Graham ROSS: O come, o come, Emmanuel; trad, arr Stuart NICHOLSON (*1975): Ding! Dong! Merrily on high;

The Organisatie Oude Muziek, which is responsible for the annual Festival Early Music Utrecht, also runs the Early Music Season: a series of concerts taking place at several places across the Netherlands from October to June. Part of the season is a Christmas concert that takes place the week before Christmas. It has a more 'popular' character, and includes not only early music, but also traditionals that many people know. For this reason I have always stayed away from these concerts. This year I decided to give it a go, when the Choir of Clare College Cambridge performed a concert at the Cathedral in Utrecht. The fact that the programme has a wider range than just early music, explains that the Cathedral was nearly sold out, which normally only happens during the festival.

The overarching theme of the concert was the image of the new-born Jesus as a 'rose'. It is included in one the most famous Christmas hymns of all time, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. The English medieval carol Ther is no rose of swych vertu is also a kind of evergreen.

The programme consisted of three elements: music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, German music from around 1600 and pieces by English composers of the 20th century, either original or arrangements of traditional carols. The United Kingdom seems to be unique in that composers from the 19th century onwards have written and are still writing pieces for Christian feasts, such as Christmas. This has resulted in a large repertoire which English choirs can draw on. It was no surprise that the performances of these pieces came off best, although I am hardly qualified to make a judgement in this matter. To be honest, I don't like this kind of music very much. It has to be said, though, that it makes a difference if one is able to hear it live, in comparison to a performance on disc. In a setting like the concert I attended, it is easier to swallow. That is also due to the acoustic of the Cathedral, which is well suited to English music that is often written from the perspective of a large cathedral. However, the acoustic was also a problem, especially in some earlier music. But in the later repertoire the large reverberation took its toll too, especially when the large organ intervened. That was the case in the opening item, O come, o come, Emmanuel, which was performed in the form of a processional hymn. Halfway the organ came in, and it virtually drowned out the choir. Was that the intention of the arranger, Graham Ross, the choir's director? It seemed to me that choir and organ were sometimes a little out of sync as well. Later on, some members of the choir acted as solists, and I wonder whether each of them has been heard by the people at the far end of the church. The items for choir a capella were the most convincing.

I did not have high hopes of the performance of the German pieces. Over many years of reviewing recordings and concerts I have encountered quite a lot of performances of German music by ensembles from the English-speaking world that largely or entirely missed the point. I was pleasantly surprised that the German part was rather good - much better than I had expected. Quem pastores laudavere by Michael Praetorius was one of the highlights of the evening. The uneven sections consist of four lines, shared by four solo voices. The soloists from the choir, among them a treble with a lovely voice, did a good job here, and the choir responded in fashion in the even sections. Praetorius' compatriot with the same surname, Hieronymus (not related), was the composer of a Magnificat, in which two German Christmas carols are incorporated: Josef, lieber Josef mein and In dulci jubilo. Graham Ross had opted for a pretty 'baroque' performance, for instance with regard to dynamics and the treatment of the text, and that seems entirely right. The choir and its members in solo episodes did very well here, and that made this piece another highlight.

The earliest pieces had I expected to come off better than the German items, but again I was wrong. That was largely due to the size of the choir. A document from 1540 reports about a Mass in Cambrai, celebrated in honour of Charles V, during which the motet Praeter rerum seriem by Josquin Desprez was sung by 33 voices. The fact that it was specifically mentioned, suggests that it was unusual. An ensemble of about thirty singers is simply too large for most pre-baroque music, unless it is scored for two or more choirs. That was not the case here. I already mentioned the carol Ther is no rose of swych vertu; it is scored for two voices. That makes it a piece of chamber music, to be sung in domestic surroundings, and it is rather odd to perform it with a choir of this size. In my view it lost most of its character because of that. The same goes for Lullaby, my sweet little baby by William Byrd, which is taken from his collection Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadnes and pietie of 1588. It was explicitly intended for domestic use: apart from sacred pieces it included secular songs. They should be performed either by voice and viols or in four parts by singers, a capella or with viol consort. A performance by a choir does not do it any justice, and having heard this piece recently in a recording with voice and viols, the performance by the choir of Clare College left me unsatisfied.

In comparison the motets by Morales and Mouton were much more convincing. They didn't suffer from the reverberant acoustic, because of their long lines, which need to be sung legato. However, in a performance with a large choir one cannot expect much transparency.

The concert had started with an evergreen, and it closed with another one, the inevitable Silent night, sung in an arrangement by Graham Ross.

The audience was enthusiastic about this concert, and if one puts aside the stylistic issues, that is not hard to understand. The Choir of Clare College is a good ensemble, reflecting the impressive tradition of choral singing in the United Kingdom. For me, as someone who does care about performance practice, the assessment is a bit different. In the end I was in two minds: on the one hand I was positively surprised by some performances, as I have mentioned, in other cases I was disappointed. Am I going to attend the Christmas concert next year? We shall see.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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