A Wells Christmas

A Wells Christmas
Wells Cathedral Choir
Jonathan Vaughn, organ, Matthew Owens, conductor
Resonus RES10176. 61’54

Music by David Willcocks, Andrew Carter, John Rutter, Kenneth Leighton, Thomas Hewitt Jones., Bob Chilcott, Jefferson McConnaughey, Matthew Owens.

The Wells choir dates back to the year 909 with the earliest mention of singing boys, the full choral tradition going back around 800 years.For more than 1000 years, the tradition of cathedral choirs is one of the foundations of the UK music industry, nurturing an enormous number of young musicians (albeit almost exclusively the male offspring of white middle-class parents) and then providing employment for some of them in later life. After a 1991 equal opportunities challenge in the European Court, Salisbury became the first cathedral to start a girls choir and the male domination has been lowly decreasing. Wells started their girls choir 3 years later, although curiously they do not usually sing together with the companion boys choir. However this CD uses both It is billed as “an irresistible array of popular carols and more recent offerings” and a “scintillating and varied programme vividly realised by the combined boy and girl choristers and Vicars Choral”.

Unlike the other two Christmas CDs I have reviewed here, this CD uses the full forces of the cathedral organ, both in accompaniment role and in two impressive solo pieces, all brilliantly played by Jonathan Vaughn. The choir produces a superbly coherent and richly textured sound, with some moments of real drama – by which I generally mean volume, aided by the organ letting rip.

I confess that Christmas recordings do not rate high on my must-hear list, partly because, despite being an organist, I have managed to avoid any church playing. I am therefore rather out of the loop as to what music is popular amongst present-day church goers. So I listen as a bit of an outsider, but also as a musician. Church music has always provided a welcome source of income for composers, but the style is generally dictated by what is deemed acceptable by whoever is commissioning the music. And, however welcome the pieces on this CD might be to friends, relatives and supporters of the splendid Wells Cathedral Choir and lovers of the sort of music that choirs and composers of church music churn out around this time of year, I do find the contemporary compositions leave something to be desired. How would Messiaen (to quote just one church composer of a surprisingly long time ago) fit into today’s climate of religious composition lite?

I often listen to new review CD ‘blind’, without looking at the music list. Listening to this CD of I got to track 11 before I found something that I found harmonically adventurous, after a succession of superficially attractive but rather dull harmonic sequences in a safe quasi-modern mode, many of them derivative, based on formula promoted by the influential first edition Carols for Choirs, notably with David Willcocks Sussex Carol clones, with their distinctively tinkly organ accompaniment.  It turned out that the first piece that I found harmonically interesting was the organ solo Christmas Cradle Song written by Alfred Hollins, who died in 1942!

That said, for those that like this sort of thing, this is undoubtedly a fine recording from a very professional sounding choir and with the distinctive sound of the English eclectic cathedral organ. For some reason, the gaps between the tracks are rather larger than usual.


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