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Ely Cathedral

CAROLS AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE
CD FROM ELY CATHEDRAL CHOIR

Scattered amongst the tracks on this compilation of festive music are recordings of familiar and traditional favourites. They need no introduction, but one of the carols in that category is "O Christmas tree" which will remind any local audience of the magnificent giant-sized tree which is always a much admired feature of Christmas at Ely cathedral, and pictured on the cover of this CD.

Also sprinkled through the sequence are three sets of organ variations. Two of them are highly mannered settings of "Noels", carol melodies so beloved of the French Classical Organ School. The other organ work, by the Belgian composer, Flor Peeters, is built on the Dutch carol, "King Jesus hath a garden". Six verses of an English translation are also sung by the choir, unadorned in the harmonization by Charles Wood.

Sir Malcolm Sargent's popular arrangement of "Mary had a baby" is the only Negro Spiritual in this programme. Perhaps its success is due to the simplicity of the approach where variety is achieved through key and dynamic colour. Composers and arrangers are often more complicated in their approach to Christmas music and there is plenty of evidence of this elsewhere on this recording - especially in the faster moving pieces. But much is to be said for simplicity, and another example of the straight forward approach is John Ireland's original setting of a text by Herbert Brown, "The Holy boy" with its splendid climax in the final stanza. The trick here is so simple: the highest melody note is one pitch higher than in the verses which precede it and the effect is awesome.

The challenges in the arranging a traditional (if not the best known) melody to "I saw three ships" were to avoid emulating John Rutter's often performed and highly effective preexisting solution (as published by OUP) and to achieve decent length and contrast whilst working with a really short tune. There were many models on which to draw where some modest spikiness in the harmony and a free approach to the organ accompaniment hopefully do the business.

Alan Bullard has written much music for Christmas and it has proved popular with singers and audiences alike. The language of "Scots Nativity" is melodious and fluent and the choral textures beautifully devised with a particularly effective closing phrase which works beautifully as an echo device, bringing his setting to a dreamy close.

The carols by musicians with Ely connections include those by John Lawson Baker and Jeremy Filsell. "Maid mother Mary" was written for Ely Cathedral Choir. It opens and closes with gentle passages for the upper voices. More vigorous rhythmic writing accounts for the rest of the carol but with effective use of longer note values for certain brief recurring refrains.

Jeremy Filsell was assistant organist at Ely Cathedral in the early 1990s. His career has taken in various posts in the USA as well as in the UK and he has been associated with the Vasari Singers for whom the splendid carol "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day" was composed. The writing is full of energy - not least in the organ part, and the musical language betrays Jeremy's love of the 20th century French Romantic organ school.

It is good to include an atmospheric setting of "In the bleak midwinter" by Philip Ledger (1937-2012). What a challenge it is to write fresh music for Christina Rossetti's fi ne text when versions by Holst and Harold Darke are so well known and so frequently sung. Ledger's response to these words does not disappoint.

The jolly setting of "Ding Dong" by Mack Wilberg has been heard in concerts and broadcasts on many occasions in recent years and the busy organ interludes add much cheer to a straight forward delivery of the three verses sung by the choir. The organ also plays a very prominent role in Alexander L'Estrange's "Hodie!" which sets traditional Latin words (beginning, in translation: "Today Christ is born, Alleluia...) in the jazzy style for which this composer has become well known. Written for the choir of Portsmouth Grammar School in 2010, the rhythms of this vivacious original carol setting are infectiously joyous - not least as a result of their repetitions as the leaping melodies develop through a series of sequences.

Track Listing

It came upon the midnight clear - Trad. (Descant: Paul Trepte)
Silent night - Harm. Paul Trepte
Mary had a baby - arr. Sargent
The Holy Boy - Ireland
Organ: Bon Joseph écoute moy - Corrette
I saw three ships - arr. Paul Trepte
O Christmas tree - Trad. (Descant: Paul Trepte)
Scots Nativity - Alan Bullard
King Jesus hath a garden - Trad.
Organ: variations on King Jesus hath a garden - Flor Peeters
Maid Mother Mary - John Lawson Baker
While Shepherds watched - Trad.
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day - Jeremy Filsell
Organ: Noel Suisse - D'Acquin
Away in a manger - Trad.
In the bleak mid-winter - Ledger
Ding Dong - Wilberg
Hodie - L'Estrange
Hark the Herald - Trad. (Descant: Paul Trepte)

Carols around the ChristmasTree