Ave Rex Angelorum: Carols and Music tracing the journey from Christ the King to Epiphany

In this unique sequence of music for the Christmas season, the choir of Keble College presents a captivating selection of twenty- and twenty-first century choral music, arrangements and well-known carols. The programme, which features several world premiere recordings, reflects the present tradition of grand liturgy at Keble with inflections of plainchant and kaleidoscopic organ accompaniment. The disc was recorded in the great Benedictine monastery of Buckfast Abbey, showcasing its stunning acoustic and magnificent Ruffatti organ.



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The range of material on this disc kept me returning to it, Matthew Martin’s Choir of Keble College attacking unfamiliar repertoire with zeal. The handful of familiar carols here are heard in interesting arrangements: Simon Preston’s take on “I saw three ships” has a predictably flamboyant organ part and Edward Higginbottom’s “Rocking Carol” dilutes the original’s clashing tritones, the dissonance softened under a thick blanket of choral squelchiness. The singing is spectacularly good. Richard Rodney Bennett’s “Lullaby baby” is exquisite, and Britten’s compact, elusive “Hymn to St Columba” is effective. Soprano Laura Newey’s tone is just right for Lennox Berkeley’s “Look up, sweet babe”, the disc ending with a bang in the shape of John Taverner’s “Ave Rex angelorum”.




Consistently polished singing, sensitive organ playing and energised direction, there can be no better Christmas CD out this year.  In short, buy it!


Ancient plainchant, medieval texts and numinous harmonies form a unifying thread for this uplifting recent disc from the Choir of Keble College Oxford recorded in the warm acoustic of Buckfast Abbey.  What especially appealed to me is the absence of the ordinary, the avoidance of commercially attractive carols that are sung by all and sundry and, with few obvious exceptions, music that was unfamiliar.  The hour-long compilation is bookended by the urgent pleas of Christus vincit (recognising the authority of Christ in a centuries-old Roman Catholic text) arranged by Martin Baker and John Tavener’s extraordinarily affirmative Ave Rex Angelorum, its startling boldness ebulliently realised by both choir and ex-Keble organist Jeremy Filsell. 



Opera Today



The special acoustic of [Buckfast Abbey] this neo-Gothic Benedictine church in Devon is the third instrument in Ave Rex Angelorum from the Choir of Keble College. Oxford (the second being its new Ruflfati organ). Keble's 'Journey from Christ the King to Epiphany' masterminded by its outgoing boss Matthew Martin has a particular sound, shaped by that acoustic but also by Roman Catholicism - a seam established in the opening track, Martin Baker's Chnstus vincit, festooned with the gleaming sound of that organ. Where the way needs smoothing, Martin steps in to contribute his own unobtrusive plainsong-derived works, including a deft fusion of 0 come, 0 come Emmanuel with the first of the Great ‘Oantiphons that rears up in anticipation of Christ's coming. It is music of the acoustic and of the place, with the faintest smell of incense but no flouncing about, and a strong sense of expectation. After new discoveries (for me) by Richard Rodney Bennett and Edward Higginbottom, the album ends with Tavener's furious Ave rex angelonim - another workout for the organ and a piece that needs vocal presence, confidence and tonal quality. It gets them from the Keble choir, precise but warm and nuanced with a first-rate soprano group, a credit to Martin's work on it. In sound and concept, a winner.




This is an attractive programme of music following the journey from Christ the King to Epiphany. Martin Baker’s punchy arrangement of Christus vincit provides an arresting opening and sets up the disc for an hour of well-chosen, well-performed music that is a joy to listen to. The choir’s diction is flawless. Most of the music is by 20th- and 21st-century composers, with some plainsong arrangements along the way. What a treat though to hear the Alleluia: Vidimus stellam in its original plainsong setting, sung by the upper voices of the choir: an ethereal performance! Equally impressive is the urgent and powerful account of Britten’s Hymn to St Columba. Matthew Martin’s O Oriens also receives a wonderful performance – the music is given space to breathe; it is an outstanding example of medieval plainsong meeting 21st-century counterpoint.


Church Music Quarterly


Recorded in the gloriously resonant space of Buckfast Abbey this is a glorious disc of bold and engaging repertoire. Here is music that captures the mystery and wonder of the festivals and seasons. Martin’s ingenuity as a composer is reflected throughout the disc; his O Oriens is especially striking, exploring many different vocal textures and organ timbres that shed new light on the familiar words and melodies. The plainsong arrangements dotted throughout the programme are compellingly presented; textual clarity and rhythmic fluidity are well combined. Hymns are dramatically realized without ever being over-wrought. The Christmas portion of the disc features works of several familiar names and also familiar words and melodies, yet there is a sense of musical freshness here that is most welcome, The colourful harmonic palate of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Lullaby baby is given an especially fine account. The disc comes to a climax with the title track, Taverner’s brief but arresting work, Ave Rex angelorium, that challenges listeners in its textural juxtapositions, rhythmic complexity and startling conclusion. The choir is more than up to this challenge, and indeed performs with impressive cohesion and clarity throughout, wile the organ accompaniments make excellent use of the Abbey’s organ. This is a disc to savour. 


***** Martin Clarke Organists’ Review


It’s no surprise that this year’s sack of Christmas releases is less than half the volume of last season’s, given the challenges choirs have faced this year. However, much was recorded before lockdown and the results are high in quality and imagination. University chapel choirs have certainly been busy. On Ave Rex Angelorum, Matthew Martin directs the Choir of Keble College Oxford, with Jeremy Filsell and Benjamin Mills at the organ, as they trace the journey from the feast of Christ the King to the Epiphany [CRD Records CRD3537]. This atmospheric collection almost forms a musical liturgy, underpinned by plainchant with vibrant accompaniments arranged by Martin. Carols from Lennox Berkeley, Britten, Rodney Bennett, Rütti, Tavener, and several by Martin, are sung with precision and drama.


Choir and Organ Magazine


Every year I look for at least one Christmas collection which breaks new ground and which can be played all year round. In fact, I see that several are… but this would be a good candidate to mention in that regard, with several tracks of new or newly-arranged material. No one collection could hope adequately to cover the whole of the Christmas period, which traditionally ran until Candlemas on February 2nd., but the emphasis here on the less familiar makes for an attractive programme. There are some familiar items, in slightly unfamiliar garb, but nothing that has been over-worked.

All the arrangements have been tastefully, but not insipidly, done. Plainsong purists may object to the harmonisations and arrangements, such as that of the Gloria on track 8, but the harmonisations add a degree of warmth to the music without unduly altering it.

Recorded at Buckfast Abbey, this album comes with a pleasingly warm sound. Not the least of the reasons to record there, I imagine, was for the two organists who divide the programme between them to have a go at the powerful and versatile Ruffatti organ. The wonderful deep bass in the middle of the final track, Taverner's Ave Rex angelorum, is felt rather than heard… the booklet does all that it should…

My review copy was in 16-bit (wav) format, and that seems to be the best that's on offer, along with the same quality on CD. There seems to be no 24-bit, but the 16-bit is very good, so that need not be a problem.

It was an excellent idea to leave the Tavener till last, though it lends its name to the whole collection. It's typical of Tavener in that it challenges the listener, yet stays within the traditional line of Western choral music simultaneously. All concerned rise to the occasion splendidly, both here and throughout the programme. I know that there are some fine albums on their way for Christmas 2020 – I've been sampling some of them in preparation for the article that I mentioned – but this is one of the best. On this basis, and the earlier William Hayes recording, the other Oxford and Cambridge college choirs have some real competition on their hands.

Music Web International – Classical Review

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