“A Winter Breviary”: Choral Works for Christmas

A lovely album, all the more cherishable for its wealth of new Christmas material. St Martin's Voices is a superb choir

“A Winter Breviary”: Choral Works for Christmas

After Central German Christmas Cantatas yesterday, A Winter Breviary beings us music from composers very much of the present: the oldest composer here was born in 1955.

St Martin's Voices is clearly a crack ensemble, capable of rock-solid pitching in times of contemporary music adversity. The programme begins with a remarkable fusion of ancient and modern: a piece by Olivia Sparkhill (born 1976): All and some, to a 15th-century text and a piece that simultaneously sounds of our time and reaches back to time long ago. It celebrates the birth of Jesus and the bliss of salvation in a decidedly dance-like manner:

Sparkhill: All and some

The text of There is no rose is certainly famous; and Cecilia McDowall's reputation for excellence precedes her. This piece was written for the 2021 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Dissonances echo the rose's thorns (and inherent in that, the suffering of Jesus on the cross). St Martin's Voices capture the essence of the work beautifully:

McDowell There is no rose

A “breviary” is a book containing the service for each day. In her A Winter Breviary (from which the disc takes its title), Reena Esmail (born 1983) takes the idea of Christian services (Evensong, Matins and Lauds) and interweaves it with three Indian Rāgs, echoing the progression from dawn to dusk (Rāg Hamsadhwani, Malians and Ahir Bhairav). There is a supra-religious element to Rebecca Gayle Howell's texts, which celebrate the natural world and seasonal change. The sequence starts with the Winter Solstice night in “We look for you,” which invokes the archetype of the wander (here a pilgrim) walking through the woods:

Ismail A Winter Breviary: We Look for You

Stillness haunts “The Year's Midnight,” and that tremendous control from the choir comes into play again. This is a marvellous piece, inviting us to exit time itself at the still centre of the night:

Ismail A Winter Breviary: The Year's Midnight

When it comes to the finale, bell-like repetition of “Praise Him” chime in Christmas morning for the final movement, “The Unexpected Early Hour”. It is a huge contrast, and St Marin's Voices embrace it totally, encouraged by conductor Andrew Earis. Esmail's marriage of carol with rāg throughout is a virtuoso act of composition; more importantly, it is cmpletely and utterly convincing:

Ismail A Winter Breviary: The Unexpected Early Hour

St Matin's Voices, photo © Lia Vittone

Sarah MacDonald's The Manger is Empty sets texts by Welsh poet R. S. Thomas. “Like the snow in Winter,” an adaptation of Thomas' 1972 poem Song (I chose white but with red). It is utterly glorious, a frozen moment of time. The second, “As among broken glass” seems more carefree, until the simile of light refracting on broken glass, which she sets in unison and then the music fragments into more jagged territory. Finally, “The Manger is Empty,” a lullaby with some startling harmonies at the line, “Pity Him”. Here are all three movements, next to each other should you wish to hear them as a totality:

MacDonald: The Manger is Empty: Like the Snow in Winter

MacDonald: The Manger is Empty: As Among Broken Glass

MacDonald: The Manger is Empty: The Manger is Empty

Photo from the sessions for this recording

Both and Nils Greenhow's Advent Calendar and Thomas Hewitt's Love is the Answer were written for St Martin's Voices. The Greenhow is a deep response to Rowan Williams' poem (which contrasts the realities of harsh Winter weather and nearness of birth and death). The dissonant repetitions of the world “crying (in the night)” seem particularly moving:

Greenhaow: Advent Calendar

The arrival of an organ for Timothy Hewitt-Jones’ Love is the Answer comes as a nice surprise (I is played by Polina Sosnina). Here, harmonic warmth's prevalent (written during the pandemic, that might well be a response to enforced isolation for many). The group VOCES8 has features a couple of Hewitt Jones' pieces before (see this review), but those have been of a different nature. This is beautifully reflective, and there is a phenomenal solo soprano ascent at one point:

Hewit-Jones: Love is the Answer

MacDonald's three-movement The Manger is Empty is balanced by Lucy Walker's The Christmas Life, again in three parts. Walker (born 1998) is St Martin's Voices inaugural Composer-in-Residence (from May 2023). The first, “This Christmas Life,” is all about home and hearth. Texts for all three movements ar by Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), and adapted by the composer:

The Christmas Life: The Christmas Life

Setting the peace but also slightly eerie aspect of walking in fresh snow (which tends to deaden ambient sound), Walker makes her setting primarily modal (so less directional, more floating):

The Christmas Life: We Shall Walk

... before the final “The Angels' Song,” which takes teh final three verses of Sara Teasdale’s nativity poem. This is the movement that gets closest to traditional carol, and yet it plays with metre, alternating groups of seven and six:

The Christmas Life: The Angels” Song

The Divine Feminine is given a resolute second place in traditional Christianity. Yshani Perinpanayaham (born 1983) aims to go some way to righting that in When God made Eve. Eve becomes a central character, as the beginning of a female matriarchal lineage that led to the Mother Mary (“Her daughters for daughters who wore daughters / Until one daughter bore Mary Heavenly Queen ... Eve's love meant Jesus could be born to conquer Death”). The setting is as remarkable as the composer's own text:

Perinpanayaham: When God made Eve

Music by the singer-composer Roderick Williams continues to gain traction. Here is his Queen Elizabeth's Winchester Carol (The Royal Carol), Written to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II in 2018. It is ravishing, with fluent phrases (as Susan Maxted says in her excellent notes, the lines are “wreathed like coughs of holly and ivy”). St Martin's Voices brings an over-riding sense of peace to this music:

Roderick Williams: Queen Elizabeth's Winchester Carol (The Royal Carol)

... Andrew Earis at the sessions

Finally, more Bob Chilcott (we published a post on his Christmas Oratorio just the other day). This his Mary, Mother, continuing the Divine Feminine theme. Six movements, so this is a “carol suite,” all to texts by Georgia Way. The piece traces Mary's life, from her youth and courtship with Joseph (“Mary fell in love, watching / Joseph shape the sycamore tree”) through to motherhood. Scored for choir, harp (Elizabeth Bass) and organ (Sosnina again), the piece is lovely, and definitely the easiest listening on the album. Here’s the second movement, “Carpentry Carol”:

Chilcott: Mary, Mother: II. Carpentry Carol

A lovely album, all the more cherishable for its wealth of new Christmas material. St Martin's Voices is a superb choir.