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It’s no surprise that this year’s sack of Christmas releases is less than half the volume of last season’s, given the challenges choirs have faced this year. However, much was recorded before lockdown and the results are high in quality and imagination. University chapel choirs have certainly been busy.

Ave Rex Angelorum, Matthew Martin directs the Choir of Keble College Oxford, with Jeremy Filsell and Benjamin Mills at the organ, as they trace the journey from the feast of Christ the King to the Epiphany. This atmospheric collection almost forms a musical liturgy, underpinned by plainchant with vibrant accompaniments arranged by Martin. Carols from Lennox Berkeley, Britten, Rodney Bennett, Rütti, Tavener, and several by Martin, are sung with precision and drama.

An innovative programme of carols by Praetorius, interspersed with settings by contemporary British composers including Jonathan Dove, Cecilia McDowall and Judith Weir, forms A Ceremony of Carols, performed by the Choir of The Queen’s College Oxford, with Lucy Wakeford (harp), Laurence John (organ), directed by Owen Rees. These young voices have an easiness that is transparent and expressive and allows the contemporary repertoire to shine. The title comes from the inclusion of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and even if you already have that work on disc, this album is certainly worth getting.

Over now to the attractive acoustics of the chapel of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where music for Advent and Christmas is sung by the College Choir and the Girls’ Choir (the first college-based choir of its type in the UK, since 2008), with Caius Lee at the organ, and directed by Edward Wickham. It is likely that all the music on Alpha & O will be new to listeners, and it is well worth getting to know. Composers include Judith Weir and Diana Burrell, and there is a charming and unusual take on the Advent Antiphons by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. Two settings of the Magnificat are presented: a minimalist unaccompanied version by Paul Chihara, and a startlingly expressionistic interpretation from Jeremy Thurlow – not, I suspect, ideal for Choral Evensong! Christopher Fox’s starkly communicative settings based on the ‘O’ antiphons are woven through the programme, each preceded by the traditional plainchant, in an effective synthesis.

Be All Merry, with the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin conducted by Desmond Fraley, is a really successful collection of traditional carols in new settings and arrangements by contemporary composers. The music is refreshing, the singing warm and finely-honed, and added colour comes from the excellent instrumentalists of the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

‘The Song of the Sibil’ refers to the pagan prophetess, the only pre-Christian figure to have survived into medieval Christian tradition. Still sung in Majorca and handed down by oral tradition, these pieces for voices and medieval instruments – performed El Cant de la Sibil·la by Musicaround Ensemble, Eugenia Amisano (voice), and directed by Vera Marenco, who also plays vielle - encompass short chants, lengthier motets, and a liturgical drama. This is fascinating and colourful music which imparts the antiquity of Christian tradition so seldom heard – definitely an antidote to nine lessons and carols!

Bath Abbey has no choir school and draws its boy and girl choristers from the locality. On Gaudete! they sing together with the lay clerks, and also separately, with Sean Bowers at the organ, and directed by Huw Williams. The album presents traditional carols plus welcome settings from Roy Massey, and evergreen pieces from Lauridsen, Stopford and Whitacre. Reverberant acoustics and clear vocal lines combine in this pleasing collection.

As we all find modified ways to celebrate Advent and Christmas this year, these offerings will bring both comfort and inspiration to many.

MATTHEW POWER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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