When the singers of the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School gathered earlier this year to create a new album, they knew they had little margin for error.
A terrifying new virus was spreading across the world and there were rumors that Britain was about to enter a previously unheard-of state known as “nationwide lockdown.”
“We recorded our album in the final week before the first lockdown,” choir director Charles Cole recalled. “It was very much a race against time, because the political situation was developing quickly and we knew that a shutdown was imminent, so we were very fortunate indeed to get the sessions finished and complete the repertoire.”
It was against this menacing background that the choir at the London Catholic school produced a sublime recording of such works as “Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem” by Palestrina and “Videte miraculum” by Thomas Tallis.
“Looking back, I think it is probably true to say that the general sense of widening panic only added to a sense of determination amongst the boys to get the album completed and to really make it special,” Cole told CNA in an email interview.
The completed album features a sequence of music for Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas, the Feb. 2 feast also known as the Presentation of the Lord. (This video offers a taste of the work.)
“Sacred Treasures of Christmas” was released on Oct. 30 and entered at number two in the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart. This was testament, perhaps, to the bond that the choir has formed with audiences during tours of the United States.
“We are blessed to have a great deal of support in the USA,” said Cole. “The audiences at our concerts there have given us such an incredibly warm response. We are truly blessed and delighted that the album is being received so positively worldwide, but especially in the USA.”
The album, released on the prestigious Hyperion Records label, has also been well-received by critics. Gramophone, a monthly music magazine based in London, described the singers as “impressively mature and well blended.”
BBC Music Magazine “warmly recommended” the recording, saying it offered “a feast of Renaissance repertoire.”
“The 50-strong oratory choir is made up entirely of boys, and conductor Charles Cole draws singing of vernal freshness from them, with excellent ensemble and an interpretive awareness that puts many an adult choir in the shadow,” it said.
Cole appeared last month with two choristers on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo to discuss the creation of the recording as the pandemic loomed.
Why is the album capturing people’s imaginations at the end of a grueling year in which COVID-19 has claimed more than 1.6 million lives around the world?
“I think that the restrictions we are currently living under have focused our minds on aspects of life we have perhaps taken for granted,” suggested Cole.
“The suppression of singing and acts of worship have been a particularly painful loss for many of us. The hope and optimism of the Christmas message conquers all, and the beautiful 16th-century settings on our album express so well the profound truth of the Incarnation.”
Cole was among those who sprung into action when the U.K. government banned choral singing as part of its measures to restrict the spread of coronavirus.
He said: “The narrative which developed around singing was incredibly damaging and was based on supposition and stories in the media. I was just one of a considerable number of choral directors and musicians who spoke out and appealed for common sense.”
“Fortunately a scientific study commissioned by the government showed that singing was perfectly safe provided certain measures, such as good ventilation, were put in place. In our case this allowed us to continue the work of the Schola and preserve everything we had strived for.”