At the age of 22 in 1963 when he became sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey, Simon Preston was already the anointed Crown Prince of the King of Instruments. The reputation of his virtuosity and stylish response to a repertoire of five centuries had spread far before him. Having left the Abbey in 1967, he then returned in 1981 as Organist and Master of Choristers. In this capacity he had charge of the Abbey’s three carol services at Christmas, which are represented on this Deutsche Grammophon album from 1984.
Preston alighted in particular on modern carols written by British composers during recent decades. There are settings of traditional words by the late Peter Maxwell Davies, Arthur Oldham and Pete Wishart, as well as a new classic by Elizabeth Poston, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Others set verses by contemporary poets; Benjamin Britten’s A Shepherd’s Carol (O lift your little pinkie) has a text by W.H. Auden which uses the language of cowboys from the American west. They take their place alongside arrangements of older carols (The Holly and the Ivy, In dulci jubilo), as well as some of the medieval settings in their original form such as the fifteenth-century English carol Illuminare Jerusalem (better known now in a setting by Judith Weir).
For this recording, Preston arranged the music into six groups, two each from the pieces sung annually at the three carol services, with well-known Christmas hymns (including Good King Wenceslas and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) interspersed at several points among the carols.
The Choir of Westminster Abbey is on its toes in a lively mixture of old and new, familiar and less so.Gramophone