Christmas Music

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Christmas is a time when we celebrate long-held traditions: family gatherings, exchanges of presents, snow-covered scenes and images of the baby Jesus lying in a crib surrounded by the adoring shepherds, wise men and Mary and Joseph. Music is a crucial part of this annual festival. There is no shortage of Christmas carol repertoire recorded by Christ Church Cathedral Choir on the Nimbus label, but in this selection we have decided to bring together music that reflects some different aspects of the season. This is music to lift the spirits and transport the listener into a world of mystery.


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Stephen Darlington has chosen William Mathias’s Ave Rex and Poulenc’s Salve Regina to go with five great composers. Tudor England provides Byrd, Taverner and Sheppard, Palestrina represents Italy and Joao Rodrigues Esteves is Portugal. Superb meld of ancient and modern.

Tully Porter, Daily Mail, 19 December 2015

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington are one of the finest with their new recording for Nimbus of sacred Christmas works from the 16th to the 20th century.

What is particularly attractive about this new disc is that it avoids the usual selection of Christmas carols and, instead, brings us some of the finest sacred Christmas choral works from the 16th to the 20th century.

This new disc opens with William Byrd’s (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine (The sun rises), a plainsong hymn which transports us back over 400 years with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir providing some lovely individual voices in the various passages, building in texture and power before the end.

The Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992) wrote much choral music, his Ave Rex – A Carol Sequence, Op.45 being one of the longer pieces on this disc.

Ave Rex (Hail King) opens with an organ flourish before the choristers sing a repeated Ave, Ave. The adult voices and organ continue in this thoroughly contemporary yet strikingly attractive setting before all the choir come together blending beautifully in Mathias’ harmonies.

The choir rise up beautifully in the joyful Alleluya A new work is come on hand with many little subtleties and some terrific weaving and overlaying of texts. The choristers open There is no rose of such virtue against a hushed organ chord before the adult voices take over. After the choristers return the whole choir then leads on with a beautiful flow and texture, so exquisitely gentle. The music rises up passionately before calming with a solo treble and choir leading to a very fine coda.

Staccato organ chords open Sir Christèmas before the choir sound out in this joyful concluding section. There is a central organ section before the choir rejoin bringing some exceptionally fine, powerful singing.

We go right back to the 16th century with John Taverner’s (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima (Mother of Christ most holy). How this choir seem to excel in such diverse repertoire. Here they bring a transparency and brilliance to this fine piece, an antiphon on which the composer built his Mass of the same name; some absolutely splendid weaving of contrapuntal lines before rising to a final amen.

This recording continues with three more pieces by William Byrd, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), a fast flowing celebratory motet with this choir in full flow. Byrd’s O magnum misterium (Oh Great mystery) is a more measured setting, as befits the text, with some beautifully controlled singing. Puer natus est nobis (For is born to us) brings more of Byrd’s weaving of contrapuntal lines superbly handled by this choir.

John Sheppard (c.1515-c.1559) is still much undervalued yet he surely deserves to be recognised as one of the finest of 16th century English composers. Here his Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria (Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice Mary) provides a substantial example of just how fine he was. Stephen Darlington paces the choir perfectly with Sheppard’s rather melancholic setting sounding so fine. There is a lovely restraint in the slower, reflective passages and beautifully soaring passages elsewhere, bringing out Sheppard’s little harmonies and with some fine individual groups of voices.

Returning to the 20th century we come to Francis Poulenc (1889-1963). He wrote many very fine choral works of which Salve Regina (Hail Queen) is a fine example with this choir finding much beauty in the composer’s lovely harmonies.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s (c. 1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni à 6) is built on a plainchant melody that opens this work. Soon Palestrina’s genius suddenly allows the music to soar and what a sound the choir produces. They are magnificent. in this fine work with some lovely individual contributions including a fine treble. This is a particularly fine performance full of power, control, lovely weaving of musical lines and a glorious Amen.

The Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751) is not a name that will be known to many. He has a link to Palestrina in that he studied in Rome with Ottavio Pitoni (1657-1743) a disciple of Palestrina and the writer of some 3,000 masses, psalms and hymns in the contrapuntal style of the earlier composer.

Esteves’ Beata Dei Genitrix (Mother of God) has a lovely swaying gait to it before it pushes ahead rhythmically. There is an odd little middle section for a smaller group of voices before the choir all join to lead to the coda.

Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh) has a gentle opening before Esteves pushes the music forward, again with a central section for a small group of soloists, very finely sung here. The choir rejoin and move forward but Esteves includes another section for the small vocal group before the choir lead to the fine coda.

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and here is one of the finest we have. There are informative notes by Stephen Darlington but no texts. With singing as fine as this it hardly matters. This should be at the top of your Christmas music list.

Bruce Reader, The Classical Reviewer, 12 December 2014


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1 Byrd (1543-1623) – A solis ortus cardine 4.39
Mathias (1934-1992) – Ave Rex – A Carol Sequence Op. 45
2 I Ave Rex 2.32
3 II Alleluya, A new work is come on hand 1.44
4 III There is no rose of such virtue 4.37
5 IV Sir Christèmas 3.00
6 Taverner (1490-1545) – Mater Christi sanctissima 7.09
7 Byrd – Hodie Christus natus est 2.18
8 Byrd – O magnum misterium 5.48
9 Byrd – Puer natus est nobis 5.15
10 Shepperd – (c1515-c1559) – Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria 12.31
11 Poulenc (1899-1963) -Salve Regina 4.56
12 Palestrina (c1525-1594) -Magnificat (Sexti Toni à 6) 11.47
13 Esteves (c1700-1751) -Beata Dei Genitrix 3.37
14 Esteves – Verbum caro factum est 5.37

Total playing time 75.42



USA & Canadian Tour 2014

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This CD, selected from the wealth of music recorded by the choir on the Nimbus label, represents a musical journey, a fitting companion to the physical journey we have made in and around the USA and Canada in 2014. Much of the programme has Christ Church and Oxford connections as a common theme. From Taverner in the sixteenth century, to William Walton in the twentieth century, you will find here a reflection of the glories of the English choral tradition.

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Mathias Let the people praise Thee, O God
2 Taverner O Wilhelme, pastor bone
3 Byrd Ave verum corpus
4-8 Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor
9-11 Handel (arr. Mendelssohn) Acis and Galatea
12 Walton Where does the uttered music go?
13-17 Tippett Five Spirituals from A Child of our Time


Acis and Galatea

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Handel wrote the masque Acis and Galatea in 1718 for the Duke of Chandos to words by John Gay. Like the set of anthems composed at that time for the Duke it required only modest forces – five singers, four of whom sang the solo parts, two woodwind players doubling oboes and recorders, two violins and continuo. His later revisions did not fundamentally alter its scoring even when more performers were involved. Mozart provided additional accompaniments in 1788 for a performance in Vienna. In 1828 Mendelssohn, at that time a student at Berlin University, was asked to make a version for a performance by the Singacademie. It appears that it may not have been used by them and that the first use of it may have been in London in 1869 conducted by Sir Joseph Barnby. Novello’s vocal scores from that period offer orchestral parts for sale of both Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s versions, as well as the composer’s original scoring but performances of Mendelssohn’s version seem to have been rare.

In arranging the work Mendelssohn added a viola part and parts for woodwind and brass, in part simply filling in the continuo harmonies. However, like Mozart, he went further than that and rewrote, shortened, occasionally extended and more often omitted numbers. “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir” is subject to a simplification of the figuration as well as additional woodwind lines. “Happy we” is extended, and in several numbers the second violins are given an independent line. Mendelssohn wrote for performance in German but the original English text is used in this recording.

The present recording is described by the conductor as “a true Oxford project”, with performers drawn from that city and making use of the arranger’s manuscript now in the Bodleian Library. In a word, it is magical. There is a freshness about this performance which is wholly enchanting. The bass line is kept firm but light, a crucial requirement in Handel, and rhythms bounce along, avoiding any of the kind of heaviness fatal to the music. The soloists are well chosen, all characterising well, especially Brindley Sherratt as Polyphemus. The choir are admirable, even if their pronunciation in “Oh the pleasure of the plains” suggests that they are particularly well bred shepherds. This actually adds to the listener’s pleasure in stressing the delicious artificiality of the whole work. I have not heard the Oxford Philomusica before. They are apparently a professional orchestra based in Oxford, and as heard here they deserve a much wider audience.

Nimbus have done all in their hands that is necessary for the listener’s pleasure by providing a model booklet, with a lengthy essay by Peter Ward Jones, the complete English text and good notes about the performers. With Mendelssohn’s help they manage to get it all on a single disc. Obviously this disc supplements rather than replaces versions of Handel’s original, but as a change for the listener and as a delightful work in its own right this is one of the most enjoyable recordings I have heard for a long time.

John Sheppard


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I much enjoyed this performance. The recording made in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford is excellent and there are notes and full texts.

Purists may only look to Handel’s original of which there are a number of recordings. However, to do so is to deprive oneself of some fine music making in what is after all a historical part of Handel performance practice albeit by another generation.

Supplements rather than replaces the original but a delightful work in its own right. One of the most enjoyable recordings I have heard for a long time.

You might know Mozart’s respray of Messiah but Mendelssohn’s Acis and Galatea? This is an attentive performance of an intriguing curiosity.

BBC Music Magazine, Christmas Edition 2012



British Choral Music

Iain Simcock (organ), Martin Jones (piano), John Anderson (oboe), Stephen Farr (organ)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, English String Orchestra, Stephen Darlington
Comprising recordings spanning over six years work, this generously filled box set of British Choral Music is a fitting tribute to one of the best cathedral choirs in the world.
CD – 5 discs

Missa Ecce ego Joannes

This disc is not new, having been recorded fifteen years ago, perhaps unusually not in Christ Church but at Nimbus’s HQ in Wyastone Leys in Monmouth. The core of the recital consists of two major masses. The six-partMissa Ecce Ego Joannesexemplifies the concentration on homophony and repetition that informed Palestrina’s settings, and is couched in self-confident, flowing, overlapping lines excellently realised by the Christ Church choir, where purity of voice production in the trebles is sorely needed – and achieved – not least in the difficultCredo. Stephen Darlington takes theBenedictusat a fine, forward-moving and very plausible tempo, and the work is realised with precision and authority.

Missa Pater Noster,in four parts,is a more interiorised setting, but it too is interpreted with a fine sense of restrained elegance. Noteworthy in particular is the attention given to the breadth and amplitude accorded to theHosanna in excelsis, where Darlington ensures that a strong contrast is made between it and the openingBenedictus qui venitwhich he directs with refined articulation.

The disc is also notable for three other works, including two motets. The first of the two isLaetamini in Dominiand it’s a compact and vital setting, the imitative writing being clearly depicted and relished. A more reserved setting isJustorum Animaethough its well-sustained sense of meditative plasticity is finely modulated. FinallyPater Nosteris a five-voice setting published in 1675 based on – but otherwise unrelated to – the same plainchant that Palestrina used for his mass of the same name.

These light, brightly projected performances are very satisfying indeed. I wasn’t sure how I would react to the new Wyastone acoustic but in the end I’m a convert. It has air but doesn’t billow.
Jonathan Woolf

Read more:

A Portrait of Vaughan Williams (4 CD set)

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English String Orchestra William Boughton, conductor
Overture: The Wasps
The Lark Ascending, Michael Bochmann, violin
Fantasia on Greensleeves
Oboe Concerto, Maurice Bourgue, oboe
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford Stephen Darlington, director
Mass in G minor
Sacred & Secular Songs: Valiant-for-Truth (John Bunyan); The Blessed Son of God (Miles Coverdale, after Martin Luther); No Sad Thought His Soul Affright (Verse 1-Anon. Verse 2-Ursula Vaughan Williams); Lord, Thou has been our Refuge (Psalm xc); O Taste and See (Psalm xxxiv,8)
Three Shakespeare Songs : Full Fathom Five; The Cloud-Capp’d Towers; Over Hill, Over Dale

Medici String Quartet with Simon Rowland-Jones
Phantasy Quintet
String Quartet No. 1 in G minor
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor for Jean on her birthday

English Symphony Orchestra
Stephen Darlington, conductor
An Oxford Elegy, Jack May, narrator
Flos Campi, Roger Best, viola
Te Deum
O, Clap your Hands
The Old Hundreth Psalm Tune



Meditations for Autumn

Masters of the Baroque (7 CD set)

Rule Britannia (2 CD set)

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This generous collection brings together a selection that covers British music from the 17th and 18th century on disc one and on the second showcases music from the late 19th and early 20th century. The discs reflect centuries of martial and theatrical music from composers who are both familiar and lesser known.