Today’s carol is a very special one, because not only is it Purcell (and you know how I feel about Purcell), but it is sung by my church choir!
Edited December 2017: No, it’s not. I’m very sorry, but that recording seems to have disappeared from the internet. So instead you get Chanticleer, who really do it very well, even though they don’t have our rocket-powered soprano section to come in and wake everyone up after the soloists are done.
The piece is called ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, which I understand is one of the texts for Advent 3, though I may have been misled, and it’s one of those pieces where the alto soloist has all the fun. Well, she shares it with the tenor and bass soloist, but you get the picture. This is because after the Restoration of King Charles II, there was a need for church music again, but after several years of having the Puritans in charge, there was a real dearth of trained boy sopranos (Puritans not being into church music). So Purcell wrote a number of pieces of music where all the sopranos have to do is come in loudly and high and sing the melody with enthusiasm, while the other parts do most of the work (remembering, of course, that this was in the days when male altos were more common – women, naturally, did not get to sing in church choirs at all).
Which is why I always say that Purcell writes the best show-off music for altos. Well, him and Gibbons. I’d hate to have to choose between them.
My favourite thing about this piece of music is the way the sopranos come in at the chorus like a bolt of lightning or a clap of thunder – you’ve been sitting there, listening to a lot of polite strings and a delicate alto-tenor-bass trio, and then, Wham! Here come the sopranos (well, and the rest of the choir, too, but it’s the sopranos that make it for me), and you are riveted to your seat, listening to them.
Sadly, Chanticleer are way too tasteful to do this with quite the terrifying enthusiasm of a church soprano section that has been sitting patiently through three minutes of everyone else having solos except them, with nothing to do except build up a head of operatic steam that is just waiting to explode all over the unsuspecting congregation.
The other thing I really love in this piece is basically the polar opposite of unleashed sopranos, and that is the gorgeous bit in the trio about the peace of God which passes understanding. You can find it at 5:30 or so in this recording. I won’t claim that we do anything else better than Chanticleer, but that bit? That bit, I think John and Les and I can sing as well as anyone.