Hodie! brings together a selection of contemporary Christmas carols and arrangements, a snapshot of an exciting repertoire of Christmas music. Four of these pieces were commissioned in recent years for the annual Portsmouth Grammar School Christmas Carol Service: Malcolm Archer’s “Angels, From The Realms Of Glory”, Alexander L’Estranges’ “Hodie!”, Richard Rodney Bennett’s “Coventry Carol” and Tarik O’Regan’s “Ecce Puer” with a curiously ambiguous text by James Joyce. The PGS Chamber Choir is the school’s premier vocal ensemble, consisting of pupils from Years Nine to 13 (that’s Third Form to Upper Sixth in old money). Several members of the choir also sing with the Cathedral Choir and Cantate, the Cathedral Youth Choir, with which the school has a strong relationship. The singing is splendid and this choir can stand comparison with any cathedral or Oxbridge college choir and the instrumental contributions from Oliver Hancock (organ and piano), Lucy Claire Brown (horn) and Phoebe Pexton (flute) should also be applauded.
The featured carols are all well-known but not necessarily in these new arrangements. All are a pleasure to hear but may not go down well in a service where the congregation want to hear the “real” versions. For example the opening “Ding Dong! Merrily On High” in Mack Wilberg’s arrangement is recognisably the traditional tune but the organ part by Peter Stevens adds a fresh twist and Wilberg’s coda concludes it very nicely. Thomas Hewitt Jones takes Christina Rosetti’s haunting “In The Bleak Midwinter” and gives us one of the collection’s highlights, with lovely solos from soprano Phoebe Carter and tenor Isaac Waddington. However, I doubt that this new setting will ever supplant the beloved tune by Gustav Holst. Full marks for trying but, this time next year, will anyone outside of Portsmouth remember it? That, though, is the challenge of putting together a collection of contemporary carols: people, especially the once a year church-goers, want the old favourites whereas choristers and their directors want something new. Listeners who are ready to extend their horizons will get much from this pleasant collection.