Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
10:21 AM 5th December 2023

Christmas Music: Sweet Was The Song

Sweet was the Song
Christmas Music from Tewkesbury Abbey

Philip Stopford Adam lay ybounden; Alexander L’Estrange Isaiah’s Prophecy*+; Trad, arr Ralph Vaughan Williams and Christopher Robinson
This is the truth sent from above;
French trad, arr June Nixon The holly and the ivy; Owain Park Lullay my liking*+; Grayston Ives Susanni*; Kerensa Briggs Sweet was the song the Virgin sang*+; Trad, arr Philip Ledger Sussex Carol; Ben Ponniah O little one sweet*+; Malcolm Archer As I sat on a sunny bank*+; Philip Wilby Moonless darkness stands between*; Carl Rütti I wonder as I wander; David Bednall (Organ solo Wie schön leuchtet (Meditation); Carleton Etherington I sing of a maiden+; 16th century French melody, arr Stuart Nicholson Ding dong! merrily on high; Neil Cox Three are the precious gifts*+; James Lavino Before the paling of the stars*; Matthew Martin Nowell sing we; George Baker (Organ solo) Toccata-Gigue on the Sussex Carol

*Commissioned for the choir. + First recordings

Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum,
Carleton Etherington organ
Simon Bell director

Regent Records: REGCD577

For anyone unable to attend a cathedral or church to hear choirs perform seasonal music, I recommend listening to this new release from Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, as it serves as a wonderful accompaniment to all the Christmas preparations. The choir, comprised of choristers and lay clerks, sings the weekday services of Choral Evensong in the Abbey during school term time.

The repertoire is all accessible and melodic, with many of the pieces commissioned for the choir. There is plenty to enjoy, including a salmagundi of festive ingredients: eclectic, many first recordings of new music from the 21st century, all excellently sung with good diction and finely controlled under Simon Bell’s direction, coupled with Carleton Etherington’s lovely and effective accompaniments.

The atmospheric opening of Philip Stopford’s traditional Advent text Adam lay ybounden sets the scene with a beautiful hushed sound from the back line, who are soon joined by the full choir building to a well-controlled crescendo.

Alexander L'Estrange's Isaiah’s Prophecy starts with a syncopated rhythmic organ introduction that continues with a vibrancy where, along with Stuart Nicholson's exciting arrangement of Ding Dong!, Simon Bell demonstrates his choir’s technical skill and vitality.

Australian composer June Nixon’s compositions and arrangements are always enjoyable to hear. She has the ability to combine wonderful melodic lines with lovely accompaniments. The Holly and the Ivy is no exception; she sets the words to a lesser-known French melody.

The choir’s splendid a cappella sound is heard in Owain Park’s Lullay my liking. Park, through his work with the Gesualdo Six, understands how to write effective unaccompanied music, as does Suffolk composer Ben Ponniah, whose O Little One Sweet and Etherington’s I Sing of a Maiden are both captivating miniatures.

In addition, there are favourites from RVW, Rutti, and Ledger’s arrangement of the Sussex Carol.

There are two organ solos. Wie Schon by David Bednall, which Simon Bell in his notes writes, 'is an evocative Meditation on the Epiphany-tide Chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star) juxtaposes undulating quaver motion and French-influenced harmonies'. It is an expressive and mesmerising piece, and Etherington exhibits some lovely quiet stops. The other work is a Toccata-Gigue on the Sussex Carol by American organist George Baker, that shows off different colours and plenty of reeds and pedals. It is felicitous because just before Etherington crescendos to a terrific and fitting festive close, there are a couple of French-sounding bars bringing back the Advent theme with a short quotation of O come, O come, Emmanuel played on quiet stops before its rousing full organ conclusion.

There are many choral highlights on a disc sung by a marvellous choir, and a recording that successfully reveals that the 21st century composing landscape is a healthy one, awash with talented musicians.