I heard the Choir of Westminster Abbey in concert on 12/25/20 (it was live on 12/15/20), a concert in the VOCES8 Live From London Christmas concert series. They were conducted by James O’Donnell.
They opened with a glorious piece, “Verbum caro factum est,” by Renaissance composer John Sheppard. The choir is all men and boys, which gets my hackles up a bit, but traditions are important, I suppose. I thought the boys sounded a little shrill, but I guess that’s generally the expectation, am I right? “I don’t mind that it tastes like fish, that’s why I ordered fish.” That kind of situation.
Next was “Once in Royal David’s City,” which started with a boy soprano solo. I might not have my facts straight, but I seem to remember an acquaintance of mine (I won’t call him a friend because I never really liked him very much) telling me that the shtick with this concert each year is that the boy chosen for the solo doesn’t know that he’s singing it until just before the concert starts. This boy was particularly cute and just crackly enough to make him sound authentic.
The service was interspersed with scripture readings, which was a nice touch, it made it feel like we were actually in the church service.
The next piece was a rousing modern number, “Nova! Nova!” by Bob Chilcott. It made me think of Nova Thomas, a soprano whose recital I turned pages for years ago (it was the divine Martha Fischer who I was turning for, to be precise). Then another modern piece, “Bethlehem Down” by Peter Warlock, which had just enough spicy harmonies to make it sound more or less like it was written in the 20th century. I feel like the group might have used a little more rehearsal on this piece, it didn’t sound particularly special.
The concert, like all of the VOCES8 programs, had a variety of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. I could swear that I recognized one of the tenors from the Tallis Scholars concert a few nights before. I’d Google that but I don’t really care.
They did “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but not the tune that I love. They did the well-mannered English hymn, not the warm, pine-scented version I grew up singing. Here are the two versions:
The boys did seven of the twelve movements from Britten’s *A Ceremony of Carols,* with harpist Sally Pryce. The boys were rock solid, though “This Little Babe” was a bit of a runaway train. I imagine this happens more often than Britten would have liked.
A couple more modern numbers: “Stars in Heaven” by Toby Young and “Before the Paling of the Stars” by Cecilia McDowall. Nice of them to program a piece written by a woman even if they don’t let women SING… That piece had a more prominent organ part than we had heard earlier in the concert. Organist Peter Holder was very strong throughout.
It was odd hearing “Silent Night” in the middle of a program, rather than near the end, as I usually hear it here in the States. The arrangement was suitably sweet. Some of the singers were pretty glued to their music - - for real?
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” was a surprising highlight. Surprising because at first it seemed like it was filler, a familiar tune done in a familiar manner. But it had a sturdiness, a mud-between-the-toes quality that made it different from anything else on the program. Comfort and joy indeed!
I’ve never cared much for John Rutter. I find his music rather cloying, like a bathroom air freshener that acts as a synthetic representation of roses but doesn’t completely mask the underlying smell of human turds. “What Sweeter Music” was a perfect expression of Rutter’s synthetic-roses-over-turds aesthetic. Excuse me.
“Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” was amusing. It danced, but in a very square, English way. The boy sopranos rocked the house in “Ding Dong! Merrily On High.”
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” had an unfamiliar descant. I guess it was nice to hear something new but I missed the more familiar descant. I was thrilled to see “O Magnum Mysterium” by Francis Poulenc on the program because I am CRAZY for Poulenc, but I didn’t really care for their performance. It was a bit too frosty for my taste - - Poulenc should be a touch chilly but with an undercurrent of sensuality, and you don’t get that from a group of English boys. Thank God.
“Sussex Carol” brought them back to the straight-backed well-mannered English business that they do so well. They really sang out in this song, and it was delightful hearing the voices in the acoustic. “Sir Christèmas” had a prominent role for the adult males, it was nice to hear them shine for a change.
And then the biggest shocker, the highlight of the whole concert - - organist Peter Holder played the Bach organ prelude on “In dulci jubilo.” The thing that made it so thrilling was the way it was placed: the music had not cleared from the last choral number and the Holder launched right into the Bach. It was in the same key, which made the transition all the more seamless. And Holder played the hell out of it.
“Verbum caro factum est” by John Sheppard
“Once in royal David’s City” by Henry John Gauntlett arr. James O’Donnell
“Nova! nova!” by Bob Chilcott
“Bethlehem Down” by Peter Warlock
“O little town of Bethlehem” trad. arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams & Thomas Armstrong
Selections from *A Ceremony of Carols* by Benjamin Britten
“Hodie Christus natus est”
“As dew in Aprille”
“This little babe”
“Hodie Christus natus est”
“Stars in Heaven” by Toby Young
“Before the paling of the stars” by Cecilia McDowall
“Silent night” by Franz Xaver Gruber arr. Andrew Reid
“God rest you merry, gentlemen” trad. arr. David Willcocks
“What sweeter music’ by John Rutter
“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day” by John Gardner
“Ding dong! merrily on high” trad. arr. Charles Wood
“Hark! the herald angels sing” by Felix Mendelssohn arr. Christopher Robinson
“O magnum mysterium” by Francis Poulenc
“Sussex Carol” trad. arr. Philip Ledger
“Sir Christèmas” by William Matthias
Organ solo: Prelude on ‘In dulci jubilo’ BWV 729 by Johann Sebastian Bach