For those wondering just how soon the Christmas season would be upon us, today is the release date for the new (and seasonal) harmonia mundi recording Veni Emmanuel: Music for Advent. Advent (from the Latin adventus, which means “arrival”) is the period (usually about a month in duration) of preparation for the arrival of Christmas; so this is basically a recording to prepare for the arrival of Advent. It features the Choir of Clare College in the Cambridge University system, led by their Director, Graham Ross. Most of the 23 tracks are sung a cappella; but five of them have organ accompaniment provided by Nicolas Haigh, Sir William McKie Senior Organ Scholar at Clare.
The overall program of the recording is structured around the singing of eight plainchant antiphons and introduced with the plainchant version of the “Veni, veni Emmanuel” hymn. Ross’ booklet notes do not give the sources for these chants, although they appear to come from a collection (title not provided) that he compiled and had published by Oxford University Press. Interleaved between these chants are works by composers from a wide span of the history of Western music, the earliest being a motet by the sixteenth-century English composer John Sheppard, which alternates plainchant with four-part polyphony, and the most recent being a setting of one of the antiphon texts, “O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,” written in 1997 by the British composer Roderick Williams.
I have to confess that Williams’ contribution made the deepest personal impression and not just because it was the newest piece in the collection. “Adonai” is the Hebrew word for “Lord” and was often appropriated for use in early Christian texts, thus finding its use as a Latin noun. Williams’ setting is a striking reflection on how plainchant may have originated from early Jewish liturgical chant. He does not draw directly on either Jewish or Christian sources; but the tenor solo material (performed impressively by Stefan Kennedy) has strong connotations of synagogue chant. Williams has made a strong case for the shared origins of the music of these two religions.
Ross himself is represented in this collection as both composer (“I sing of a maiden”) and arranger of a richly harmonic account of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” sung in English to conclude the recording. There is also a “nodding arrangement” of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (how brightly shines the morning star), in its BWV 436 arrangement on this recording, in the form of Felix Mendelssohn’s incorporation of that hymn following the “There shall a star from Jacob” chorus from Christus. However, it is important to recognize that all of these examples that I have cited do not really account for the full breadth of selections that Ross prepared for this recording. While it would be a bit of an unfair exaggeration to call this a something-for-everyone album, the extent of Ross’ appreciation of repertoire is quite impressive, making this an admirable release for this current period of “waiting for Advent.”
It is also worth concluding by noting that Ross and his choir will actually be celebrating much of Advent itself in the United States. A one-week tour of the United States has been planned for the month of December. The dates and venues are as follows:
- December 9: Princeton, New Jersey, Trinity Church
- December 11: Concord, New Hampshire, St. Paul’s School
- December 12: St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Vermont Catamount Arts Center
- December 13: Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Peter in Chains Cathedral
- December 14: Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Fairmount Presbyterian Church