Despite a personal bias against Christmas music, I must accept that for those looking for a definitive collection of the festive repertoire, this is perfect. The 22 piece recording is, by the choir’s own admission, an exploration through the varied Christmas canon, touching on classic congregational carols to anthems. Queen’s performance is flawless and sensitive, affecting joyous swells when a cappella and refraining from overly brash descants and dynamic changes in the carols. They retain the authority of one of Oxford’s – perhaps England’s – greatest choirs throughout, which is matched appropriately with the remarkable acoustic of Keble College chapel.
There are a number of references to Queen’s own heritage and Christmas tradition in this record, not least as two of the composers are Queen’s alumni. Kenneth Leighton, who studied Classics, is behind the rather less joyful, ‘Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child’, a setting of the Coventry Carol sung as though by the women of Bethlehem before Herod murders their children. This features a haunting soprano solo with unobtrusive accompaniment. Herbert Howells, who read music and become an Honorary Fellow of the college in 1977, provides us with ‘Sing Lullaby’, which begins with a soothing repeated musical pattern and progresses into more complex accompanied textures. Of the two, the former is remarkably beautiful while the second is clearly artfully considered and developed; both deserve their place in the Christmas canon.
One particular quirk of the album, of course, is ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ which is traditionally sung as a procession into Queen’s hall at the annual dinner celebration. It’s not particularly notable for its music, yet I am assured that its omission would have been unthinkable.
The inclusion of pieces such as ‘The Lamb’ feature well in the album, although not necessarily linked to Christmas – Taverner composed this particular piece on a journey to London while musing on the poetry of Blake and his nephew. This is one of the slower renditions I have heard and while it is powerfully thoughtful in the initial sections, it perhaps gives the later homophony a lack of momentum.
The album concludes with two carols arranged by the great David Willcocks: the ‘Sussex Carol’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. These arrangements are unparalleled and their inclusion imperative in such an album. The choir clearly resists the temptation to belt out the verses, although nobody’s stopping you from turning up the volume and doing exactly that at home.