The Glory of the English Carol


17th December 2012
Parish Church of St John, Wellington



Review - A Liking For Lullays


I have to confess that for me the last three days have been the musical equivalent of a non-stop turkey and Christmas pudding binge.  ‘Blossom Street’ performing ‘Sleep Holy Babe’ in Milverton and then the Gabrieli Consort in Taunton, meant that despite the fact that I knew I’d hear a good evening’s music from Collegium, I did approach Wellington Church last Monday somewhat ‘Lullayed out’.   However, I perked up during the pre-concert talk given by the choir’s director, Peter Leech.  His travelogue through the origins and development of what we now know as the Christmas carol was both informative and witty.   His story of how these songs typically originated outside the walls of the churches and then insinuated themselves inside over the centuries was fascinating, and deservedly well received.


The concert of 21 items began with the now almost obligatory ‘Collegium procession’  - a beautifully enunciated plainsong melody from old Sarum.  The evening was arranged in a straightforward chronological sequence, and it was intriguing to trace the way the Christmas message in music became more and more accessible and more and more the province of the ordinary people.  In the 13th century ‘Qui Creavit Celum’ I was immediately impressed by the exemplary diction and perfect togetherness of the Collegium ladies – I’m sorry gentlemen, but when you came in later in ‘Angelus Ad Virginem’ the sound became a little woolier, not helped by so many heads buried in copies.


As the singers warmed up, the ensemble sound got better and better – Thomas Hamond’s ‘Swete was the Song’ was gorgeous and the dynamics well realised.  This too was the case for the so-called ‘Coventry Carol’ (in its original rhythmic shape), and the anthem by Orlando Gibbons which followed was particularly sonorous.


I resisted the temptation to mutter ‘Parapa-pum-pum’ when Peter announced the next piece would be accompanied by ‘Me and my drum’.  This piece, Ravencscroft’s ‘Remember O Thou Man’ was a simple tune, robustly harmonised and the choir’s presentation (with percussion) was rollicking fun – lovely! 


As we came through the centuries the works became harmonically more complex and layered rhythmically.  By date,  Thomas Attwood’s ‘O God Who by the Leading of a Star’ was in the classical period, but it definitely leaned forwards into early romanticism, and the choir sang it beautifully.  Immediately after the interval we heard Broderlip’s ‘Behold I Bring You Glad Tidings’ which sounded like a collaboration between Handel and John Wesley!  Foster’s ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is another good old Methodist tune, and I forgot I was supposed to be a critical reviewer and just enjoyed (as the choir obviously did) the whole piece as it bounced along.


It was not long before we reached the 20th century, a period which brought a vast expansion of the repertoire of carols and Christmas songs.  Warlock, Rubbra, Ireland, Holst and Britten have all contributed hugely to the genre, and Peter had programmed a very suitable selection.  It was in these items that I detected the first signs of tiredness (and no wonder) in the sound – Holst’s ‘Lullay My Liking’ was performed with an admirable lightness of texture, but there were one or two slightly less certain entries.  I did like the proper bouche fermée sound at the start of Rubbra’s ‘Dormi Jesu’ and the solid sound was back in Ireland’s ‘Adam Lay y Bounden’.


It was a bit cruel to ask the choir to sing the opening number of Britten’s ‘A Boy was Born’ so late in the evening – the lines are so exposed and there was some tonal uncertainty, but the evening was brought to a lovely end by Vaughan William’s cracking arrangement of ‘On Christmas Night’.


This was a concert to treasure – Collegium maintained their reputation for masterful presentation of the less hackneyed repertoire and any flaws were minor compared to the overall excellence of the evening.  Well done to Peter and all his singers.


Harold Mead