Day 6 of our Christmas countdown is here. Today, we highlight some British choral music.
Choral music abounds at this time of year, and of the large Christmas pieces, none is more popular than Messiah. While I’d be the last to put Handel into the shade, I often think that it’s a pity that the many other large and medium-sized Christmas works rarely get a look-in (especially as so many performances of Messiah are seasonally cut to only the first part). Finzi’s Et in terra pax, for example, or Respighi’s charming Lauda per la Natività del Signore. It is understandable why Vaughan Williams’ Hodie doesn’t often get an outing, as it has a massive scoring (full orchestra, three soloists and two choirs), but it is nonetheless a sadly underperformed great work. It tells the Christmas story through settings of poems by Milton, Herbert, Hardy and others, linked by narrative ‘recitative’ passages sung by a boys’ choir. The final section featured here (in a classic recording from 1965 by several of the big names of the era) is Vaughan Williams at his best, writing in his most recognisable styles: massive modal harmonic shifts illustrate the profundity of the opening of John’s gospel, and, via a swirl of harp and strings and a solemn choral announcement of ‘Emmanuel!’, give way to a jubilant, sparkling setting of text from Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: ‘Ring out, ye crystal spheres!’