From the Church Times, Friday 28 January 2005, back page (p32):

Workers, awake

Roderic Dunnett hears a seasonal rarity

churchti.png - 8Kb FOR music-lovers of a certain age, the name of Rutland Boughton (1878–1960), a significant friend of Vaughan Williams, inevitably conjures up The Immortal Hour, an evocative, fey opera — Britain’s nearest Celtic equivalent to Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande.

   But Boughton wrote much more — not least, England’s Ring cycle: half a dozen operas on the Arthurian legend, largely complete and still performable. A committed Socialist, even Communist, Boughton rarely practised spirituality on his knees. But the music of Bethlehem, his enchanting Choral Drama on the story of the annunciation, the shepherds and the Magi, which was first staged in December 1915 and caused a political furore in 1926 (when it was set in a miner’s hovel and Herod was depicted as a pre-nationalisation coalmine-owner), comes close to the pleasing timbres of The Immortal Hour.

   Bethlehem has just received a rare performance by Avalon Music, directed by William J. Wych and conducted by Brendan Sadler, at St John’s, Glastonbury[,] as part of the modern town’s tercentenary celebrations.

   Although the work might be dubbed naive, that’s not a criticism: countless Renaissance and Victorian Annunciations or Adorations of the Magi spring to mind. Furthermore, Boughton aimed several of his works at part-amateur forces. Gabriel might have surprised pre-Deller audiences: this archangel is sung by a countertenor (here with shivering beauty by Sebastian Field, of Bristol Cathedral Choir). Both the shepherds and wise men were charmingly done: some capable solo voices included the tenor Alex Clissold-Jones and the baritone Philip Lancaster (typically, Boughton allots the Magi fanciful names: “Merlin”, “Nubar” and “Zarathustra”).

   Amid music that wouldn’t disgrace Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover or The Pilgrim’s Progress, there were particularly stylish contributions from Andrew Gardiner (Herod) and Viola Nagel (a Believer). Only unsatisfactory microphoning, which slightly scuttled Katie Murphy’s moving young Mary, detracted from a heart-warming occasion.