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A recording of familiar and unfamiliar music from England, Slovakia, France and Germany. Music for Christmas and beyond. The Hildegard Choir & Guests. Gulliver Ralston, Conductor, Emily Van Evera, Soprano

This delightful recording with the Hildegard Choir of Oxford explores the rich repertoire of music written for female voices, focusing on the themes of childhood, motherhood (and fatherhood), and most obviously the Nativity from Mary’s perspective. The repertoire spans music from France, Germany, England, and some enchanting and little-known pieces from Slovakia.

The Hildegard Choir & Guests
Gulliver Ralston – Conductor 
Emily Van Evera – Soprano

Berlioz’s ‘Trio for Two Flutes and Harp, performed by the young Ishmaelites’ from L’enfance du Christ (Tracks 1 and 7) is a rarity in 19th-century oratorio, as it is a performance within a performance. After the flight from the infanticidal King Herod, the Holy Family journey into Egypt. After being rejected by Romans and Egyptians, they are welcomed into the house of some Ishmaelites, whose children perform music to entertain their weary guests.

Liszt’s Hymne de l’enfant a son reveil (track 3) is the song of a child’s wonder at the beauty of the world. There are four versions for voices. The first was written in 1845 for female voices accompanied by harmonium or piano with an optional harp part. The work comes from a crucial period of change in Liszt’s life. Until 1846, he had focused on secular texts; Hymne de l’enfant a son reveil marks a shift towards setting sacred texts.

The (venerably creaky) harmonium  which can be heard in track 3 was lent to The Hildegard Choir by The Bate Collection of The Faculty of Music at The University of Oxford. The harpsichord was supplied by Robert Goble and
Son.

The Messe in A, op. 126 by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1900) was written in 1881 for women’s voices and organ. Rheinberger studied the organ from an early age and moved to Munich in 1851 to study at the conservatory. He joined the staff there in 1859, and remained on the faculty until his death. Amongst his students were Humperdinck,  Wolf-Ferrari and Furtwangler. He was also a coach for the court opera in Munich, where he saw the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Born in Bratislava in 1956, the Slovak composer Vladimir Godar, writer, editor and translator of books on musical history, he has been instrumental in reviving the music and reputation of 19th-century Slovak composer Jan Levoslav Bella.  Godar’s  Ecce puer (track 4) which is dedicated to Emily Van Evera and Andrew Parrott, addresses the mixed emotions of James Joyce’s text. Joyce wrote the poem in February 1932 in reaction to the news – received almost simultaneously – of both his father’s death and the birth of his grandson.  Godar uses a luxurious continuo section – harp, harpsichord and chitarrone – and exploits the range of the bowed strings to their utmost limits. His arrangement of his Dormi, Jesu (Track 9) was specially made by him for the Hildegard Choir. The vocal lines of the solo soprano may be heard as a reworking of Gregorian chant while the slow, rocking accompaniment mirrors Mary cradling Jesus as she sings to him.

Jan Levoslav Bella (1843-1936) remains relatively unknown in musicological circles. He wrote most of his work on a smaller scale, much of it for the Roman Catholic Church, of which he became a priest in 1866.  In the second of two versions of his Verbum caro (track 10) we have chosen the more unusual scoring of two violins and two violas, which allows the four strings to explore the sonorities of close part-writing.

Bone Jesule (Track 13) by Frantisek Tost (1754-1829) is subtitled ‘duetto pastorale’ and was written for the nuns of the Ursuline convent in Bratislava. It encapsulates its rich folk tradition combined with the classical style, which was often characterized by elements of charm and simplicity.

Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (tracks 5, 6, 15 and 16) was conceived alongside Hymn to St. Cecilia on his long sea journey from America in 1942. While the piece has now become associated with boys’ voices, the first two performances were given in December 1942 by the women’s voices of T.B. Lawrences’ Fleet Street Choir.

Britten’s Sweet was the Song (track 12) for female voices was originally written while the composer was still at school, and reworked in 1934. It was performed by Imogen Holst and the Purcell Singers at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966.

Vaughan Williams’ O My Dear Heart was rediscovered only recently.  It’s based on the old German Christmas song ‘Lasst uns das Kindlein wiegen’ and sets words adapted by Ursula Vaughan Williams from an old Scots poem.

The Hildegard Choir has been delighting audiences of all ages since it was founded by Lucy Haigh in 1991. Formed to give talented girls the opportunity to sing together to a high standard, there are now three choirs providing an intensive training in choral music. The girls are drawn from schools around Oxford. The Choir has broadcast on BBC Television and Radio and performed at the Royal Festival Hall, the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, and Blenheim Palace.  In its short history the Choir has won awards in competitions such as Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year, and has been crowned ‘Choir of Choirs’ at the International Choir Festival of Jersey.

Gulliver Ralston is Director of The Hildegard Choir and Director of Music at the University Church in Oxford. He studied music as a choral scholar at New College, Oxford, and became Director of Musical Performance at St. Peter’s College. As a conductor he specialises in music of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and in 2010 he became Musical Director of the Oxford Mozarteum.

Soprano Emily Van Evera has earned an international reputation for stylishly expressive singing in a variety of repertoires, and has contributed to numerous ground-breaking and award-winning recordings. Stage and television appearances include operatic works by Monteverdi, Handel, Charpentier and Lully, a dramatised concert of early Tudor solo song for BBC Television and the title role in Handel’s Agrippina.  Emily has broadcast from the BBC Proms and throughout Europe and North America in music ranging from folk ballads and trumpet arias to Haydn Masses and songs by Charles Ives.

Instrumentalists: Jenny Broome (harp), Peter Hanson, Julia Hanson (violins), Vicci Wardman, Lisa Cochrane (violas), Valerie Botwright (Double bass), Katy Bircher, Guy Williams (flutes), James Brown (organ), Peter McMullin (organ, harmonium), Lynda Sayce (chitarrone) Gulliver Ralston (harpsichord).

The Hildegard Choir: Imogen Black, Abigail Harper, Marion Jenkyns, Gilly McMullin, Lucy Matheson, Rosemary O’Reilly, Kate Parrott,  Lizzie Mundell Perkins, Ellie Piddock, Anna Sander, Poppy Simmonds, Hannah Smith, Anna Stellardi, Isabelle Tighe, Holly Brazier Tope, Heather Wild, Azelie Williams, with Emma Ashby, Helen Ashby , Kate Ashby.

SOMM would like to thank Peter McMullin, Emily Van Evera, Guy and Suzanne Williams and above all, conductor Andrew Parrott for their invaluable help in making this recording.

Amidst the perennial glut of Christmas-themed recordings that will be released (and re-released) this year, few seem likely to match this entrancingly filigree-fine collection of pieces for female voices from the Oxford, England-based Hildegard Choir for sheer pleasure. … Sheer simplicity of concept and execution is the attraction here, and this delightful seasonal offering will offer guaranteed distraction from both Christmas excess and winter gloom.

Michael Quinn, The Classical Review.

On This Recording

  1. L’enfance du Christ: L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25: Part III, “L’arrivee a Sais,” Scene 2: Trio des Ismaelites
  2. In nativitate Domini: In nativitate Domini in A Major, Op. 126: Gloria
  3. : Hymne de l’enfant a son reveil, S19/R508
  4. Ecce puer
  5. A Ceremony of Carols: That yonge child
  6. A Ceremony of Carols: Balulalow
  7. L’enfance du Christ: L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25, Part III, “L’arrivee a Sais,” Scene 2: Trio des Ismaelites
  8. In nativitate Domini: In nativitate Domini in A Major, Op. 126: Benedictus
  9. Dormi, Jesu: Dormi, Jesu (version for choir)
  10. Verbum caro: Verbum caro (version for choir, 2 violins and 2 violas, harmonium and organ)
  11. 6 Hymns: 6 Hymns, Op. 118: No. 6. Puer natus in Bethlehem
  12. Sweet was the Song
  13. A Ceremony of Carols: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Interlude
  14. Bone Jesule
  15. O My Dear Heart
  16. A Ceremony of Carols: As dew in Aprille