LABELS: ASV Gaudeamus
WORKS: Works by Bach, Corelli, Gabrielli, Scheidt,
PERFORMER: Ex Cathedra Chamber Choir & Baroque Orchestra/ Jeffrey Skidmore
CATALOGUE NO: CD GAU 166
‘The Lord is my shepherd’, saith the Psalm; and Jesu, of course, his holy lamb. No wonder that shepherds, not kings, hold highest place in our Christmas affections. Is it not, after all, in memory of the socks they washed by night that children still hang out their stockings on Christmas Eve? In Anglican circles, those shepherds and their ‘socks’ have always been held in especially high regard: between its first publication in 1700 and the advent, almost a century later, of Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, Nahum Tate’s ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord’ (‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ to you and me) was the only Christmas hymn authorised by the C of E (hence, presumably, the origins of the phrase ‘Baa-ch humbug’).
Devised with dutiful pastoral care, While Shepherds Watched, Peter Holman’s seasonal survey of the unpretentious ‘gallery music’ that was once the pride of England’s parish churches (see feature), presents no fewer than four different settings of Tate’s hymn. Between them, they span some three-quarters of a century, ranging from the muscular ‘fuguing tune’, with ad hoc instrumental accompaniment devised by the peripatetic singing teacher Michael Beesly (of Blewbury in Oxfordshire) c1746, via an 1805 setting by one Thomas Clark (cordwainer, of Canterbury) – to a tune better known as ‘On Ilkley Moor baht’at’ – to the grandly Haydnesque, fully orchestrated version (trumpets and drums to the fore) which a certain John Foster (coroner, of High Green in Yorkshire) worked up around 1820 for one of the great choral festivals which were once so popular in the North of England.
Interspersed with a couple of purely instrumental numbers – including a Corelli-like ‘Pastorale’ concerto, complete with imitation bagpipes – and a pair of organ-led congregational hymns, Holman’s collection, ably realised by the singers and period players of Psalmody and the Parley of Instruments, touchingly recaptures the honest, homespun fervour of the ‘English mastersingers’, those humble tradesmen (cobblers, tailors, stocking-makers, et al) whose heartfelt music-making so enlivened England’s country churches before the purging zealots of the Oxford Movement moved in.
Rich, warm, russet-coloured and (metaphorically) mud-bespattered, here is just the sort of Christmas music which Jane Austen, that daughter of the manse, might have heard in childhood, or Thomas Hardy’s ‘tenor man’ have sung (to the sound of ‘viols out of doors’) before ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ (so memorably set by Britten as one of his utterly un-‘seasonal’ Winter Words). Hardy comes to mind again listening to Harry Christophers and The Sixteen’s An Early English Christmas Collection: for here, in the sombre early 17th-century penitence of Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Remember O thou man’ we find the ‘ancient and time-worn hymn’ that the Mellstock Quire sings to Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree.
But while Fancy’s fancy might more likely turn to the dance-carols that lighten this medieval medley – the 15th-century ‘Salutation Carol’ especially, with its sprightly dance metres and striking alternation of sober solo scriptural narration with rowdy Nowelling chorus – pride of place goes to yet another Sheppard (John, c1515-60), whose ethereal ‘Gloria in excelsis’ takes wing in a finale of such airborne polyphony that his choirboys had to be paid extra to sing it. Certainly the women of The Sixteen here earn their keep. Those shepherds crop up again throughout Sanctus, the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra choir and orchestra’s cleverly planned disc of Baroque Nativity music.
Here, contrasting South and North European responses to events in the manger are herded together around a briskly pointed reading of Corelli’s evergreen ‘Christmas Concerto’, with its lilting 12/8 evocation of the Italian shepherds’ annual descent from the hills, blowing bagpipes and bawling carols. It was a nice idea to use the most famous of all shepherds’ carols, the Neapolitan ‘Quando nascete ninno’ (complete with authentic chalemie accompaniment), as prelude to the Pifa (or ‘Pastoral Symphony’) from Handel’s Messiah, in which it is distantly recalled.
But the real finds here are the two French offerings – ‘Noé, Noé: Pastores’, Guillaume Bouzignac’s breathless dialogue for the Angel Gabriel and the awestruck herdsmen, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s delectable Latin cantata, Salve puerule, in which three simple shepherds, Talon, Brion and Isabelle (sopranos all), expound the metaphysical mysteries of the moment to the holy infant in his crib.
Corelli again, or at least his ‘Christmas Concerto’ – he clearly wasn’t christened Arcangelo for nothing – serves to herald Concerto Italiano’s delightful recording on Opus 111 of Abramo, il tuo sembiante, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Vatican cantata for Christmas Eve 1705.
It’s an extraordinary conception: the expectation of Midnight Mass channelled through five Old Testament figures – Abraham the Patriarch, and the prophets David, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah – as they languish in limbo awaiting the Messiah’s coming. In a glittering succession of 12 (mostly da capo) arias, Scarlatti brilliantly captures the five prophets’ changing emotions until, in a brief concluding ensemble, even the jeremiad-spouting Jeremiah is finally persuaded to join the general rejoicing. And look out for the two arias in rustic 12/8 time for the ever-hopeful Daniel (effervescently sung by soprano Rossana Bertini) – yes, it’s those shepherds back again!.