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 Recording of the Week  Music for Christmas

My personal favourite from this year’s batch of festive new releases has to be A Wondrous Mystery, the second-ever Christmas disc from the ten-year-old UK early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico; their first, Puer natus est, was released five years ago, and focused on English Tudor music for Advent and Christmas. This time they’ve taken on Flemish and German music from the latter half of the sixteenth and very beginning of the seventeenth centuries, with an elaborately polyphonic mass by Clemens non Papa (based on the composer’s own Christmas motet, which itself appears on the disc) forming the backbone of the disc and simpler seasonal motets and carols interspersed between its movements.

Stile Antico
Stile Antico

I popped up to All Hallows Gospel Oak during one of the recording sessions in February to listen in as they worked on the Kyrie of the Mass, and had a chat with the singers during one of the breaks – they told me how the project had grown (like many of their previous concert-programmes and recordings) from their collective interest in the conflict between two contemporary religious discourses and their musical languages, in this case between the rather stark vernacular settings of Lutheran worship and the more flamboyant, melismatic (often Italian-influenced) Catholic tradition. The singers toured this programme extensively in Germany last Christmas, which apparently spurred them to polish their early German diction to perfection in advance (!); as usual, Stile sing with exemplary blend, clarity and precision, all of which appear more impressive than ever in the intricacies of the Clemens Mass but also make Michael Praetorius’s little gem ‘Es ist ein Ros ensprungen’ really sparkle.

The Praetorius also features, albeit fairly radically reworked by the Norwegian composer Erling Pedersen as ‘A great and mighty wonder’, on Yulefest!, the latest offering from Trinity College Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Layton: the disc includes traditional and new carols as well as lighter fare such as barbershop-style takes on ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘White Christmas’, in a nod to the choir’s activities outside their regular chapel services.

Highlights for me are two new works by the young Trinity alumnus Owain Park (b.1993): an easy-on-the-ear ‘Cradle Song’ which put me a little in mind of Bob Chilcott, and a dazzling setting of ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, full of fiendishly intricate part-writing which the fresh-voiced, well-schooled Trinity singers despatch with total aplomb. And Robert Rice’s witty take on Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ may have you checking your track-listing at first listen – the familiar jaunty tune only emerges a minute or so in, from a mysterious opening which draws on Vaughan Williams’s ‘Full fathom five’ (Trust me, it works!).

Quadriga Consort
Quadriga Consort

For something a little more left-field, perhaps check out the Quadriga Consort’s Winter’s Delight, an intriguing collection of folk-influenced settings of early British carols by Nikolaus Newerkla; despite the presence of a harpsichord, violas da gamba and recorders, the sound-world contains more than the occasional nod towards 80s and 90s pop ballads, and though there’s plenty of festive jubilation on offer the disc doesn’t shy away from also exploring the darker side of winter (the text of ‘The Traveller Benighted in Snow’ almost veers into Winterreise territory).

Finally, if you’re looking for a traditional collection of the best-known carols, the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral are on superb form this year, with their bell-bright trebles and punchy lower voices making a fine job of all the old favourites; the disc also includes two more recent carols, John Rutter’s ‘All Bells In Paradise’ (written for The Choir of King’s College Cambridge a couple of years ago) and Philip Stopford’s luminous setting of the Coventry Carol.

A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas

Stile Antico

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Yulefest: Christmas music from Trinity College, Cambridge

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton

Available Format: CD

Quadriga Consort: Winter's Delight

Quadriga Consort

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Carols With St Paul's Cathedral Choir

St Paul's Cathedral Choir, Andrew Carwood

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC