Christmas Across the Centuries
St. Albans Chamber Choir
Director: David Hansell
Organ: Roger Judd
Christmas Across the Centuries
This recording grew from a performance of Mathias' Ave Rex (22-25) given by St Albans Chamber Choir in 1999. The original medieval melodies for three of the texts were already known to us (3,10,15) but did the old melody survive for the fourth? The discovery that it did (21) and our knowledge of several other medieval/modern pairs (1/5, 8/12, 16/18, 19/26) provided an ample framework for what became an interesting and wide-ranging project. The time-span of the programme was extended backwards by the inclusion of plainchant (4,9,13) and the 15th/20th century gap was bridged by the inclusion of music from the core Renaissance/Baroque SACC repertoire (2,6,7,14,20). All this meant that a piece from the first concert the choir gave in 1958 (20) was included and the programme was completed by two motets by Francis Poulenc (11,17 - linked to 9/20 and 13 respectively) whose music was prominent in SACC programmes 1998-2001.
Most of the 'modern' settings of the venerable texts are, of course, original compositions though it is interesting that the composers often reflect medieval techniques by, for example, alternating vocal forces (12) or building their harmony on parallel fifths and fourths (18,22-25). However, the art of the arranger is also amply represented. The oldest of these is the unknown 15th century hand that added a counter-melody to the fine 14th century Resonemus laudibus (19), a tune which also proved irresistible to the doyen of modern carol arrangers, David Willcocks (26). Chronologically between these two lies the work of Michael Praetorius and JS Bach. The former's prodigious output of music based on Lutheran chorales (hymns) ranges from duets to polychoral extravaganzas in as many as 20 parts. From these riches we have taken two sturdy four part harmonisations (6,14i), a four part polyphonic setting (14iii) and a setting for eight voices, divided into two choirs (14iv). The second verse of In dulci jubilo is also in eight parts, but disposed as one sonorous ensemble.
Inevitably, the most sophisticated music in the recital is that of Bach. His Vom Himmel hoch (7) was composed as one of four seasonal interpolations included in the first version of Magnificat. Here, a technique often heard in his organ music is used, wherein the noble melody is heard in long notes accompanied by a contrapuntal tapestry woven from faster moving fragments of itself.
St. Albans Chamber Choir
St Albans Chamber Choir was formed in 1958 with the aim of achieving the highest standards of performance in programmes of both familiar and less well known music. Its repertoire ranges from music of the fifteenth century to works commissioned by the Choir from contemporary composers, including Nicola LeFanu, John Joubert, John Tavener and most recently Malcolm Singer. Acclaimed for its a capella singing, the Choir also works regularly with professional instrumentalists, orchestras and soloists. Among its awards, the Choir won in 1994 a coveted BT Innovations Award for its mixed-media event 'Images', featuring music from and inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church together with an exhibition of icons, and in 1999 the Choir was awarded an Eastern Arts Voluntary Music Development Grant to develop its programming and commission a major new work. The Choir performs both locally and in London, and also makes regular visits to Germany through its 26-year association with the Wormser Kantorei from St Albans' twin town, Worms.
David Hansell began conducting at school when a staff shortage led to his directing the second orchestra. At Durham University he specialised in Renaissance and Baroque music, conducting concerts to celebrate Praetorius and Schütz among others. He sang as a choral scholar in the Cathedral choir, was Assistant Organist at the University Church and, while a postgraduate student, conducted the University Chamber Choir. Despite (or perhaps because of) these activities, he achieved both first and research degrees and diplomas in organ playing and conducting. As a conductor and continuo player he has made numerous appearances in both the UK and further afield, including two tours of the USA. David now focuses on the vocal ensemble Sospiri, of which he is the continuo player, the Esher-based Ripieno Choir, and St Albans Chamber Choir, of which he became the conductor in 1997. He also edits music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and is a regular contributor to the specialist magazine Early Music Review.
Roger Judd was a chorister in Winchester Cathedral, and continued his musical career as organ scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied with Sir David Willcocks. For the past fifteen years he has been Assistant Organist of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where he accompanies the Chapel Choir in their services, broadcasts, concerts and recordings. He was organist in 1999 to the Royal Wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones and had a world-wide TV and radio audience of some 200 million! He teaches organ scholars at the Universities of London, Reading and Oxford, and the piano at Eton College. Roger is currently involved in a scheme, jointly sponsored by Slough Education and Eton College, to promote and foster interest in the organ amongst young children. He continues to perform widely within the UK, from Wakefield to the Isles of Scilly, and has made four solo CD recordings.
Produced by Jonathan Leonard
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Photograph: Nativity scene (detail, South Aisle window, Ely Cathedral) © copyright Woodmansterne