What an ambitious garland! Tavener, Ireland, Bax, Howells, Warlock, Frank Bridge, and Vaughan Williams, with a centrepiece of Gerald Finzi. Finzi's Dies Natalis op 8 and In terra pax op 39 aren't often heard together as they're both demanding, but David Hill is so assured in this repertoire that he was able to conduct them so convincingly that we were left wondering why we shouldn't be hearing programmes like this more often. This is what the BBC does best and should be doing more of. Listen to the programme again soon through this link .
John Tavener's God is with us : A Christmas Proclamation was a good starting point, for the piece is modern, though rooted in the Greek Orthodox tradition, which long predates the Church of England. . The soloist (Nicky Spence) intones the lines in quasi-plain chant. "The people who walk in Darkness have seen a Great Light" : the contrast between the soloist's firm declamation and the reverential murmur in the chorus reflects the imagery in the text. Arnold Bax Mater ora filium created a gentler mood. Then, a surprise, a setting of John Ireland's The Holy Boy for strings, rather than voice and piano, from which the Intrada to Finzi's Dies Natalis evolved, quite effectively.
Although there are references in Finzi's Dies Natalis to a new born, the piece is far too esoteric for simplistic interpretation. Dies Natalis isn't necessarily about the Infant Jesus, nor even about a new-born child. Fundamental to this cycle is the sense of wonder, of seeing the world anew through absolutely pure, unbiased eyes. It's not oratorio. Finzi's approach to Traherne's Being is transcendentalist in spirit, completely unjudgemental, transfixed by the sheer miracle of existence. "A Stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange Glory see......Strange all and new to me, but that they MINE should be ...who Nothing was... yet brought to pass".For a more detailed analysis of Dies Natalis, please read THIS.
Nicky Spence understood the strange mysticism in the piece. He sang the Rapture beautifully, respecting Finzi's strange, unworldly syntax, using just enough vibrato to accentuate key words. "The corn was orient", he sang, making the vowel shimmer. You could visualize wind blowing over a field of ripe corn, making it move. He put so much effort into the rapture that his voice became slightly strained towards the end, but it didn't matter. He's young and will mature. It's far more important that he has the musical nous to understand how the piece expresses meaning.
Finzi's In terra pax is more conventionally religious, to a point. Finzi uses a text that mixes two poems by Robert Bridges that refer specifically to Christmas Eve, 1913, and a "water'd valley" from which the sounds of church bells can be heard. For Finzi, the bells are all-important, for he found his artistic Epiphany in 1925 on Chosen Hill. At midnight, he came out into sharp frost, the night sky filled with stars, and "heard bells ringing across Gloucestershire from beside the Severn to the hill villages of the Cotswolds". Read more about the background to In terra pax HERE, because it's relevant to interpretation.
In this chamber version, low strings suggest wide vistas and pealing bells, while the harp creates atmospheric "snowfall". The poet describes a 20th century world, but this goes back to "that first Christmas of all" where shepherds, who knew nothing of Christ, heard angels "si-i-i-ng-ing", as Finzi decorates the word. In terra pax works on multiple levels. Past and present co-exist. Bridges' poem blends into the Bible, and Finzi mixes Bethlehem with Britain. A soloist sings "Fear not!", set so high it sounds like an angel. This isn't "straight" Nativity though it's inspired by the first Christmas. For Finzi it reflected his own creative birth, and thus his career as composer and all-round Renaissance man. In terra pax was also written under the shadow of cancer,and was the last piece Finzi conducted. David Hill conducted the BBC CO and singers beautifully. The passage where the chorus is divided to suggest the pealing of bells was particularly well done. Hill's recording is as good as the one conducted years ago by Vernon Handley. Stephen Charlesworth, a BBC Singers veteran, sang the baritone part this time, nicely modulated, high and clear. The timbre of the final phrase "th'eternal silence" is tricky, but reminds us that the poet is human, not angel.
In comparison to the sublime In terra pax, Herbert Howells' early Three Carol Anthems are more mainstream. The second song, A Spotless Rose, is by far the most distinctive. Although there's a stanza for baritone, the loveliest moment comes when the BBC Singers elide the final line "cold winter's night". Frank Bridge's Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) was brisky witty, almost jazzy. Folk dance for the early 20th century, briskly played by members of the BBC CO. David Hill's arrangement of Peter Warlock's On Bethlehem Down gives the BBC Singers a chance to show how well their voices blend. It's odd to think of a man like Warlock writing Xmas carols but composers have to make a living.
Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols still sounds fresh though it was written exactly 100 years ago. Edward Price sang the baritone part, the BBC Singers joining in merrily. Nice dark cello introduction to a cheerfully blended punch bowl of famous tunes.