St Mary-at-Hill, London
5 December 2013
Warlock's Adam Lay Ybounden, in its more familiar choral version,.
The words are gratefully indistinct, even when sung by the Choir of King's College Cambridge. From here.
Making the words of carols audible only highlights the vulgarity of Christmas, with few exceptions.
Yet another cleverly programmed free lunchtime recital in a London church, scandalously under-attended. I haven’t seen anyone at these events who looks like they work in the capital’s financial district, so it’s sad that these great venues and concerts are inconveniently located for music-lovers.
The paradoxically austere intimacy of Wren’s church, lit by the midday sun, jarred with the traditional idea of a carol concert, but actually this wasn’t too traditional. For one thing, the words were clear.
Regarding the mismatch between words and music, carols represent an extreme version of all that is despicable and complacent in modern Christianity. The music of the worst example here, Cooke’s O Men from the Field, blithely ignores the understandable fear the poem states the shepherds felt when angels appeared and directed them to God’s incarnation. The Holly and the Ivy, also presented here, has one of the finest poems addressing what is supposed to be a mysterious fusion of joy and tragedy, but nothing of this is evident in Sharp’s famous but sentimental musical setting.
The problem is highlighted, but not solved, in two appealing carols by a contemporary composer, Thomas Hewitt Jones. Here the words struggle with the myth of the tragic incarnation, but the result is a victim of its own success: the repellent aspects of a god sacrificing his own son are out of synch with the rest of the carols. Perhaps they are better suited for Easter.
Two of the finest works here were settings of disturbing poems. Rubbra’s Rune of Hospitality sets a poem that treats Jesus as if he were the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, disguising himself as a beggar to test his people’s charity. So generosity to the poor is linked firmly with self-interest. The other disturbing highlight was Warlock’s setting of the medieval Adam Lay Ybounden, an astonishing celebration of the redeeming power of sin that boldly reinforced the ‘acetic priest’ underpinnings of the religion.
Robert Smith, the pianist, is also an organist, so the concert contained two solo organ works by Buxtehude, and two songs accompanied on that instrument. Turning the necessity of having to move around into inventiveness, the seating plan allowed the audience to focus on the architecture, a very good idea given the visual dullness of a typical concert.
Tenor Charles MacDougall gave helpful synopses of the carols and why they were in this particular order; song texts were unnecessary given his clear diction.
Performance-wise, the only mistake in the programme was Adam’s rapturous O Holy Night (in English); otherwise the recital seemed ideally chosen to reveal the rottenness of this season.