United Kingdom Elgar, Warlock, Poulenc, Cornelius, Bednall, Chivers, Parry et al.: Rodolphus Choir, Ralph Allwood/conductor, Cheltenham College Chapel, 2.1.2012. (RJ)
Call me old-fashioned – and many people do – but I still cling to the notion that Christmas lasts from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night in January – not, as the retail trade would have us believe, from November to December 24th. Moreover, I find modern Christmas a tad boring: too much unhealthy food, countless programmes from yesteryear on TV, and not much music to speak of.
So imagine my delight when I came across this live choral concert by the Rodolphus Choir conducted by Ralph Allwood. I was even more delighted to learn that Ralph has just been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List. This is a well deserved reward for his services to music with young people over a period of 40 years, notably a series of summer courses for young singers throughout Britain (known as the Eton Choral Courses). Many of them have gone on to have illustrious musical careers.
The members of the Rodolphus Choir, founded in 1984, are chosen from past participants on these choral courses and range in age from 17 to 25. While I have no wish to deprecate the efforts of choirs of more mature singers, I have to admit that the fresh sounding voices of the Rodolphus performing a capella made the music especially vivid and arresting.
Thomas Ravenscroft’s arrangement of the carol Remember. O Thou Man created a wonderful Christmassy start to the evening and was followed by Videntes Stellam, one of Poulenc’s motets pour le temps de Noël, which was full of the sparkle and interest we associate with the French composer’s music. I was also impressed by Tribus miraculus ornatum from David Bednall’s Christmas Cantata which had received its premiere just five weeks previously. The movement it celebrates the visit of the Magi to Christ, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. The rhythmic opening section led to a chordal sequence rich in harmony, and after a return to the opening sequence the work reached a climax of ecstatic alleluyas. This was a not inconsiderable piece of music and I can’t wait to hear a performance of the whole cantata.
O Do Not Move, John Tavener’s miniature Ikon of the Nativity, was brief but striking, and was followed by a more expansive motet by Chris Chivers entitled Ecce Puer, which returned us to the English tradition of church music. I found the familiarity of Peter Cornelius’ arrangement of The Three Kings for baritone and chorus most reassuring with an unnamed baritone singing with warmth and clarity from the pulpit. The last of the Christmas pieces was Bethlehem Down written by Peter Warlock (aka Heseltine) and his friend Bruce Blunt, which won a Christmas carol competition organised by a British newspaper in 1927.The music is restrained and hauntingly beautiful, and it seems strange that it is not better known.
The crowning event of the evening had nothing to do with Christmas. Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell were written close to the end of his life and are an outpouring of intense personal feeling. It was impossible not to be moved by this fine performance in which hope and despair, fear and confidence are present in equal measure. I hope the Rodolphus Choir include this work in their repertoire when they visit New York and Washington between April 14 and 23. (www.rodolphuschoir.co.uk)