Incarnation

incarnation-large

Gabrieli Consort
Trebles of Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir
Paul McCreesh

£12.00

MP3 Album also available from iTunes.

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Programme

Running order:

Adam lay ybounden - Matthew Martin (1976)

Veni, Veni Emanuel - Anon, 13th century

Long, Long Ago - Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Lullay, Lullay: Als I lay on yoolis night - Anon, 14th Century
Matthew Venner, Counter-tenor

Balulalow - Francis Pott (1957)
Emma Walshe, soprano

Qui creavit celum - Anon, 13th/14th century

The Three Kings - Jonathan Dove (1959)

This endere nyghth I saw a syghth - Anon, 15th/16th century
Guy Cutting, Tenor; Christopher Watson, Tenor (verses); Greg Skidmore, Baritone

A Hymn of the Nativity - Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Ruth Provost, Soprano

Letabundus – Sarum Chant, 12th/13th century
Gabriel Crouch, Stephen Kennedy, William Townend, Baritones

A Boy Was Born – Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
    A Boy Was Born
    Lullay, Jesu
    Herod
    Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour
    The Three Kings
    In the bleak mid-winter
    Noel
Nicholas Algot Swensen, Treble

Reviews

"This wonderful album of unusual seasonal music will make time stand still …Incarnation is a rather rare musical beast, being a Christmas disc crammed with properly unfamiliar music that still sounds at home in a room scented with pine needles and advent candles…

…Aside from the freshness of hearing festive repertoire that hasn't already been recorded to death, the disc stands out for the fact that McCreesh has chosen a programme full of genuinely interesting music…

…As always with singers under McCreesh, there's a feeling of emotion that transmits understanding but stops short of being emotionally overdone. Simplicity rules over sentimentality in readings characterised by directness, clarity and warmth…"
Charlotte Gardner, www.sinfinimusic.com

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the many loyal and dedicated Gabrieli supporters who have kindly supported this recording, including Steve Allen, Stephen Barter, Bob Boas, Tim Congdon CBE, Valerie and Patrick McCreesh, John Walton and Gabrieli Chairman Richard Brown. Once again, I would wish to thank Father Oliver and the community at Douai for welcoming us so warmly to the inspiring surroundings of the abbey church. My thanks also to Ebbe Munk and Tine Jarl Christensen for their excellent training of the boys' choir.

This recording is dedicated to Ron Haylock, Gabrieli's Chairman until 2010, who died suddenly in May 2013. His great love of music and his interest in sharing this with young people made him a natural supporter of Gabrieli and he will be much missed by all of us.
Paul McCreesh

Paul McCreesh

Interview

Paul McCreesh in conversation with Jeremy Summerly. Jeremy Summerly is conductor of Oxford Camerata and the Choir of St Luke's Chelsea, a reviewer for BBC Radio 3's CD Review, and the author of A Cause for Carolling: The History of Christmas Carols published by Profile Books.

This is a Christmas disc, there is no doubt about that – but it's cast in an unusual mould. I can’t think of a less 'commercial' Christmas recording than this.

That will come as no great surprise to those who know my musical tastes, I’m no Scrooge – on Christmas Eve, the turkey is stuffed, the tree is decked and at least a bottle or two are opened in the McCreesh household! Of course I understand that, for many, the traditional carols are an important part of the Christmas ritual. However, there is something quintessentially wonderful about the story of the Incarnation – verbum caro factum est, the son of God becoming man: it seems to me that the greatest Christmas music captures a sense of awe-struck wonder at this miracle. I find it frustrating that so much of the repertoire has moved away from the central truth of this message, often becoming saccharine and sentimental – all tinsel and glitter, and very little else.

I find it particularly interesting that the programme you have devised moves straight from medieval repertoire to that of the 20th and 21st centuries. There is nothing renaissance, baroque, classical or romantic: you have indeed cut out much of the core Christmas repertoire!

I think there is something that unites these seemingly disparate periods – certainly, all the music expresses beautifully a sense of wonder and simplicity. So much of the British carol repertoire draws heavily on the heritage of Tudor texts and imagery: Britten's A Boy Was Born is clearly in this mould, setting poetry that is almost exclusively from the 15th and 16th centuries. This piece is not just the most substantial on the recording, but was also the starting point from which I built the programme. Britten's new settings of old texts suggested the idea of combining new and old music – 'Carols Ancient and Modern', if you will. From there a programme started to emerge. It is perhaps slightly unusual for a conductor to place such emphasis on text, but it is the natural starting point for any composer of choral music and for me it’s an equally instinctive way to begin programming.

I think the inspired part of this programme is that the repertoire is all interesting and very different, yet it is linked in this one essential way, by the texts.

The programme also follows an intrinsic progression; there is a strong connection between the pieces as we move inevitably through prophecy, to the crib scene and the meetings of the shepherds and kings. Across the different centuries, composers of course paint these scenes in very different colours, but nevertheless they often reflect the same emotional world. In fact, all Gabrieli's recent a cappella recordings tend to explore the connection between the vocal repertoire of today and that of earlier centuries. The great canon of music inspired by the religious tradition has, at its core, an essence of emotion that unites all humans of any time; it transcends the centuries in a quite extraordinary way.

I should add that I'm always very concerned that these programmes should have a carefully designed shape and musical logic. The richness of 20th and 21st century English choral music, with its beautifully written polyphony and often richly astringent harmony, sometimes needs a 'palette cleanser'. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the medieval music here – beautiful and worthwhile in its own right – only serves that function, but it does provide necessary relief before the next onslaught of glorious lush harmony.

There are five loosely 'medieval' works here. People can have a very fixed idea about how this music should sound, but equally performers make very varied choices because there is so much that is unknown about performance practice of the period. How do you approach this music?

The early repertoire here is very simple, almost entirely monophonic. I've chosen music which would probably have been performed in a domestic setting, or possibly in small chapels. This more intimate music – chants, lullabies and crib songs – precedes the elaborate liturgical repertoire of the late medieval and renaissance periods. The wonderful monodic lullaby Lullay, lullay or the Epiphany carol This Endere Nyghth have a haunting, almost hypnotic simplicity. In these performances they are distilled down to their barest components. Nothing is added to the notes on the page, no particular expression or emotion is sought, save the delivery of the text. The beauty for me is in the simple rise and fall of unadorned melody and the old English, sung by a single singer or by unison voices. I have never understood the necessity of adding drones, percussion and improvised 'world music' elements to this repertoire, much as nowadays it seems to be de rigeur all too often.

You are passionate about using 'authentic' pronunciation.

I'm not sure passionate is quite the word! Nevertheless, to find an intelligent way through the huge spectrum of the musical canon, and to gain an understanding of the continuum that runs through it, it is essential to allow each particular kind of music to have its own colour. For me, the natural way to approach this is from a historical perspective (no surprise there!) and I think this has to include language too. I can't see why this should be regarded as unexpressive or academic: for me, pronunciation is an intrinsic part of the historical sound-world. As you might expect of someone who has recorded Berlioz in French Latin, I think it would be a pity to hear medieval song performed in modern English. There is of course the valid argument that modern pronunciation aids communication, but to me it compromises the beauty of the unique sound-world. In any case, a few footnotes quickly explain the idiosyncrasies of the older language.

I'm interested to know what drove your choice of medieval works.

I am no medievalist and my knowledge of this repertoire is extremely slim. I can say with honesty that I went no further than the New Oxford Book of Carols – this extraordinary collection of 'original' carols of so many periods, put together by Hugh Keyte, Andrew Parrott and Clifford Bartlett. Sadly, 20 years after its publication, much of the music therein is still rarely heard, especially the very early pieces. That’s partly because choirs want to perform choral music, of course, and so much of the medieval repertoire is solo or consort music, but there is much wonderful music here. So I was happy to choose from this erudite collection, with grateful acknowledgement to the editors. I hope that we might encourage more people to delve into this extraordinary resource which, for me, is the perfect counter-balance to the tired, hackneyed favourites.

The three 20th century composers here – Howells, Leighton and Britten – weren't exact contemporaries, but they are certainly a triumvirate representing the English choral tradition. You’ll find their works on any Anglican Cathedral music list.

Indeed, and yet all three had an uneasy relationship with religion. Take Howells, for instance, whose canticles are some of the most well-crafted pieces of liturgical music; yet I feel that the greatest Howells tends to be found in his settings of more demanding texts, such as Take him earth for cherishing, or his Requiem. Long, Long Ago is not so well known, but it is a brilliant illustration of Howells' subtle response to expressive words. The poem, written by John Buxton in 1940 in a Prisoner of War camp, responds to the idea of Christ the Peace-Bringer, a theme which Howells had earlier explored in the last of his Three Carol-Anthems, written during the First World War.

There is also much wonderful Christmas music by Leighton – music of evident sincerity and great beauty, often set for solo soprano and choir – and I particularly liked A Hymn of the Nativity. There is something in the tenderness of Leighton’s response to the text – a very long and convoluted 17th century dialogue between two shepherds from which he selected specific verses – that obviously touches the romantic in me.

In addition to the 20th century repertoire you have chosen three works from this century. Is it difficult to select contemporary music to stand alongside acclaimed masterpieces of earlier periods?

Perhaps it is, but these are unashamedly personal choices; I would justify them only by saying that all three works speak to me and move me. In putting these programmes together, I go through an agonizing process of listening to probably 200-plus pieces and select just 10. It drives my choral manager to drink because I am obsessed with finding well-written music that is serious and connects in a deep way. Needless to say, calypso versions of Ding Dong Merrily on High get dismissed before the end of the first verse… However, despite huge amounts of research and time, there is a certain element of chance to it.

I'll let you into a secret – the opening track of this recording, Matthew Martin's Adam lay ybounden was added to this programme only a few days before the first rehearsals. I had just discovered it and, on first listening, this young composer's setting of a familiar text knocked me sideways! It is beautiful, exquisitely written music that somehow completely encapsulates the emotional world of the poetry. So although we had a fully formed programme I just had to include it, announcing to our audience that they would have to accept us performing an encore at the start of the programme!

Francis Pott's Balulalow is the newest piece on the recording, written in 2009 and cast, like Leighton’s work, in the recognised frame of soprano solo and choir.

This is another text that has been set many, many times, but I felt that Pott captured the sweetness of the text without sentimentality: a very difficult path to tread… especially at Christmas time. I love the fact that this composer writes real polyphony. There is a reason that Mozart, Handel, Bruckner, Mahler – indeed all the 'greats' studied polyphony: it is the essence of all western music. Pott doesn't write misty 'mood-music', however fashionable that seems to be amongst choral composers today. His writing is not particularly difficult – it's largely tonal – but it is incredibly well crafted.

Jonathan Dove's The Three Kings was written in 2000 and is also beautifully written. The title suggests a very traditional carol, but his choice of a text by Dorothy L. Sayers completely contradicts any pre-suppositions one might have!

Yes, it's an interesting juxtaposition of ideas, isn't it? The Epiphany story seen through the prism of the three ages of man. Perhaps it's just a wonderful illustration of how the Christian tradition can be reflected and developed in such a vast variety of ways.

So is that what you are looking for – a new composer, able to set a very old text in a meaningful way that speaks to us now?

I guess that’s most of it – there is something about the human voice and the choral sound that can encapsulate certain human emotions in the most sincere and natural way. A great piece of choral music should have the same emotional impact as a symphony, albeit on a smaller scale. I think it’s important that great choral music is heard in challenging programmes such as this. There is always the danger that it just becomes fodder for Evensong, or for quaint Victorian-style carol services. I think the repertoire deserves so much more than that. I dream of commissioning a truly ‘major’ a cappella work, one of significant duration; I am sure this would challenge many composers of choral music more used to writing short pieces. But maybe such a challenge might stimulate one of these wonderful composers to create something extraordinary?

The culmination of this programme is most certainly a 'major a cappella work of significant duration' – Britten's early masterpiece A Boy Was Born. It's almost unbelievable that this extraordinary piece was written when he was still a student at the Royal College of Music.

Yes...it is astonishing that any student – even a burgeoning genius such as Britten – should write a work such as this, arresting on so many levels. It is breathtakingly virtuosic, very challenging to sing and yet, crucially, never unvocal. It is also, at around half an hour, one of the longest a cappella works in the repertoire. It is both a compositional tour de force and, as so often with Britten, an exquisite response to a wide range of cleverly selected poetry.

Britten seems to have been aware of the audacity and ambition of the work. He's young, he knows that he can’t do or know everything, he knows that he is pushing boundaries. Yet, at the same time, he grounds himself by writing a set of variations on a theme of four notes. It's as if he's well aware that whilst challenging every aspect of the idiom, this structural conceit will prevent him straying too far off course!

Exactly so. It is extraordinary what he achieves with those four notes – not just breathtaking imagination but an ability to manipulate structural form that is so common amongst symphonic composers and yet relatively rare in choral music. Here Britten's response to word settings is as refined and subtle as anywhere but, in adopting the symphonic form of theme and variations, he does something incredibly innovative.

The sound that you draw from the choir, and the way it has been recorded, is incredibly intimate and intense. Many recordings capture the choral sound from a distance, putting an aural halo around it, but it feels to me that you place the microphones relatively closely to the singers: you can feel the emotion in the singing, which you certainly don't shy away from.

I'm not so sure it’s just a matter of recording technique; I have long been obsessive about conveying text, and in particular I work hard to persuade the singers to place consonants very brightly at the front of the mouth. But I hope that this sense of increased emotional commitment is something of a hallmark of the Gabrieli sound – I'm certainly pleased that, as a choral conductor yourself, it's something you immediately noticed. I constantly plead with my singers to think deeply about the words which they sing. I know that I challenge them as I have a different set of priorities from many other British conductors. Beauty of sound, clarity, precision – for me these are the starting points, not the whole raison d'etre. Conveying feeling, moving the audience, drawing them in to the deeper meanings of text: these things mark out truly great singers and are equally applicable to choral and solo singing. I know I push my singers very hard and that they may not always feel loved, but they are an amazing group of hugely talented people and it’s an honour to work with them. It's good to be able to put that on record!

So, let me review the record for you in advance. "Contrary, evangelical, but always sympathetic." Are you happy with that?Well, maybe all three adjectives describe something of my personality and might not be entirely inappropriate, even on my tombstone! I think it is good to try to offer a different perspective and I believe that there should be a reason to commit more music to CD. Certainly, the music presented here is, of its kind, peerless, and it is for me to ensure that it is programmed and performed in a way that reflects, enhances and celebrates that. This is just one musician's response to a most wonderful and profound story at the centre of the Christian tradition, one that has been at the heart of western culture for centuries. No more, no less.

Biographies

Gabrieli Consort

Gabrieli are world-renowned interpreters of great vocal and instrumental repertoire spanning from the renaissance to the present day. Formed as an early music ensemble by Paul McCreesh in 1982, Gabrieli has both outgrown and remained true to its original identity. Over thirty years, the ensemble's repertoire has expanded beyond any expectation, but McCreesh’s ever-questioning spirit, expressive musicianship and a healthy degree of iconoclasm remain constant features and continue to be reflected in the ensemble's dynamic performances. Its repertoire includes major works of the oratorio tradition, virtuosic a cappella programmes of music from many centuries and mould-breaking reconstructions of music for historical events. Above all, Gabrieli aims to create inspirational and thought-provoking performances which stand out from the crowd.

Today, at the heart of Gabrieli's activities is the development of a pioneering education initiative in the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. This partnership with leading UK youth choirs has enabled Gabrieli to work extensively with teenagers from across the UK in intensive training programmes focused on recording major works of the oratorio repertoire and performances for such prestigious promoters as the BBC Proms.

Gabrieli has long been renowned for its many award-winning recordings created during a 15 year association with Deutsche Grammophon. In 2010, Paul McCreesh established his own record label Winged Lion, which in less than three years has released five extremely diverse recordings, underlining Gabrieli's versatility and McCreesh's breadth of vision: A Song of Farewell (English choral repertoire from Morley and Sheppard to Howells and MacMillan), A New Venetian Coronation 1595 (revisiting their famed 1990 recording of music by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli); and three spectacular large-scale oratorio recordings made in conjunction with the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir with the support of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław: Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Mendelssohn Elijah and Britten War Requiem.

Paul McCreesh

Paul McCreesh has established himself at the highest levels in both the period instrument and modern orchestral fields and is recognised for his authoritative and innovative performances on the concert platform and in the opera house. Together with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, of which he is the founder and Artistic Director, he has performed in major concert halls and festivals across the world and built a large and distinguished discography both for Deutsche Grammophon and more recently for his own label, Winged Lion.

McCreesh works regularly with major orchestras and choirs, and the larger choral repertoire, such as Britten War Requiem, Brahms German Requiem and Haydn The Creation and The Seasons, feature increasingly in his work. He has established a strong reputation in the field of opera conducting productions of Handel, Gluck and Mozart at leading European opera houses.

McCreesh is passionate about working with young musicians and enjoys established collaborations with Chetham's School of Music and many youth orchestras and choirs, both in the UK and internationally. He was Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival from 2006 to 2012 and was Director of Brinkburn Music (in Northumberland, UK) from 1993 to 2013. In 2013 he assumed the position of Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser at the Gulbenkian Orchestra, Lisbon.

Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir

Founded in 1924, Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir has been the resident choir at Copenhagen Cathedral since 1959. As early as 1962 Benjamin Britten conducted the choir in the new work written for them, the now ubiquitous Ceremony of Carols. The choir has sung for conductors such as Giuseppe Sinopoli, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Charles Mackerras, Christopher Hogwood, Paul McCreesh and Vladimir Ashkenazy and have had works written for them by prominent composers, including Poul Ruders. Under the direction of Ebbe Munk, the choir has toured to countries including South America, China and Australia and, closer to home, work regularly with the Danish National Radio Choir. Their numerous royal appointments include performing at the wedding of Prince Frederik of Denmark to Crown Princess Mary in Copenhagen Cathedral in 2004 and also at the baptism of their first child.

The choir is widely recorded, including discs for EMI, Chandos and Decca. In November 2003 CRCC was honoured in Paris by l'Institut de France-Académie des Beaux-Arts with the Prix Chant choral Liliane Bettencourt 2003.