Friday, December 30, 2005

Reviews: Nativitas and Agnus Dei from The Choir of New College, Oxford

It’s been too long since I’ve done some reviews. And I bought a lot of books and CDs in England. So here goes. Today I review two CDs from The Choir of New College that I bought in Oxford.

Nativitas (1997) is a good recording of 23 Christmas classics, such as “Adam Lay Ybounden” and “O Magnum Mysterium”. I say “good” because interspersed among some of the pieces is this cloying New Age flute. It really gets annoying when the flute plays over the choir on the last song, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I bought the CD to hear the choir, not a flute that doesn’t know its place.

If you aren’t annoyed by the flute, then you can mark the CD up to excellent. It is more ethereal than happy, so take that into consideration before buying. (I like “ethereal” better myself.) And a poor choice was made in including “Once in Royal David’s City” without a solo for the first verse. King’s College does that one so much better, New College should have tried something else.

With those caveats, I recommend the CD. I noticed the cover on Amazon is different than the cover I got in Oxford at Blackwell’s Music. The one I have has a photo of the New College Chapel on the cover. But I assume the music is identical.

But if there is only one CD from New College that you buy, then you must buy . . .

Agnus Dei (also 1997 – quite a year for the choir) is the most incredible choral CD I have yet heard. It is even more other worldly than Nativitas and unspeakably beautiful.

As soon as you hear the first piece, Barber’s “Agnus Dei”, you will know this CD is a world apart. The atmosphere is so ethereal without overproduction (although the production is clearly excellent). Individual voices are very clear, which I like, while perfectly fitting together. And the 12 pieces, while from different ages and composers are also made to fit together very well, making the CD almost seamless.

I’m at a loss to describe it further. Such music as this makes words inadequate. This is a wonderful CD to either listen to carefully, or to use as background or go-to-sleep music.

And the only cloying New Age element is the subtitle on the cover: “Music of Inner Harmony”. No annoying flutes or such in the recording, thanks be to God.

There is a second CD from 1998, Agnus Dei II. But I did not find it quite as excellent as the first CD. If you see a two-for-one special, then get it as I did. But if not, then perhaps stick with the first one.

In any case, I can’t recommend Agnus Dei strongly enough, even for those who aren’t (yet) fans of English choral music.

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