Sunday, 16 December 2018

Annual Christmas Round-up

Carols from Chelsea
Welcome to our annual Christmas round-up, where we take a look at recent discs of carols, Christmas music and more.

100 years of Nine Lessons & CarolsThere are fewer carol disc this year, but what there are are some corkers, and we also have more general Christmas music selections including trips to the Renaissance and to France. Choirs vary from mixed voice adult choirs, Oxbridge chapel choirs using mixed voices, boys voices, and girls voices to a school choir with a difference. There are two female vocal ensembles, both bringing a distinctive twist to Christmas and Seasonal repertoire. Howard Blake's The Snowman makes an appearance in the company of the late Sir Ken Dodd, and we finish with a DVD, very traditional yet highly modern take on Cinderella.

An Ely ChristmasIf it is carols you are wanting then SOMM's Carols from Chelsea is just the thing, a delightful selection of carols and more from William Vann and the choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. The selection ranges from old favourites arranged by David Willcocks and RVW's O Little Town of Bethlehem to Tomorrow shall be my dancing day and Michael Head's The Little Road to Bethlehem, there is William Byrd too, all beautifully sung. There are organ also solos and at the end the disc's secret weapon. The choir finishes with an arrangement of White Christmas in which they are joined by Chelsea In-Pensioner George Hatton, whose first professional recording this is at the age of 88!

The choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea is a mixed voice one made up of young professionals with women on the top line. Of course, for many the sound of Christmas has to be boys' voices, and the choir of King's College, Cambridge's Service of Nine Lessons and Carols embodies this. Under retiring music director Stephen Cleobury the choir has produced a double CD set on its own label celebrating the centenary of the service at King's College. The fascinating thing about this set is the selection of archive recordings dating from 1958 to 2017 under David Willcocks, Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury, though it is a shame nothing earlier could have been found. Here we can trace the changes, and the constants, in 'The King's Sound'.

The Mystery of ChristmasWe get a selection of the carols commissioned for the service, with works by Thomas Ades, Carl Rutti, Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, Arvo Part, Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins. Some are perhaps hardly carols, but all are fascinating takes on what it means to write a Christmas anthem. The second disc is a traditional sequence of carols new and old, making it clear that traditions can change and grow.

Over at Ely Cathedral, Sarah MacDonald and the choir give a new take on tradition with An Ely Christmas on Regent Records in which  MacDonald conducts the Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks in a delightful programme which includes old favourites in new or less familiar arrangements, alongside newer pieces by Paul Mealor, Will Todd, Ben Parry, in fact there are an impressive 15 pieces on the disc by living composers the majority born after 1960. So here we have new traditions, sung with real joy and infectious enthusiam by the Girls Choristers and Lay Clerks.

Advent Live - Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
A rather different tradition of Christmas is represented by The Mystery of Christmas on Divine Art, here we have Greek Kalanda (carols) composed by Cilia Petridou. Setting traditional texts of Petridou's own, we have a series of songs sung by Jenni Harper, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Alison Smart with piano accompaniment from Sarah Down. The Greek texts represent a slightly different view of the traditional Christmas, echoing the Greek Orthodox celebrations. Of Greek-Cypriot origin, Petridou studied at the Vienna Academy and the Royal Academy of Music, and her attractively melodic music has its own distinctive traditional elements to it too. The CD booklet, though, gives you little background to the music and concentrates instead on the art of Petridou's father, whose drawing graces the CD cover.

Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College, Cambridge have concentrated on the run up to Christmas with Advent Live, a programme of music taken from the college's annual A Service for Advent with Carols. The selection includes three new carols specifically written for the choir by James Burton, James Long and Tim Watts, as well as carols by Ian Shaw, Judith Bingham, and Paul Comeau. Whilst the youngest composers on the disc are David Bednall and Tim Watts (both born 1979), the oldest is Francis Jackson (born 1917)! And it is nice to see Palestrina and Gibbons alongside the traditional and contemporary carols. Everthing is live, recorded by the BBC at the college's annual service in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 thus giving the music a lovely immediacy, and the choir is here on great form.

A Renaissance Christmas - The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
For their disc on Coro, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen are having A Renaissance Christmas with an attractive programme which features an eclectic programme of festive music by J. P. Sweelinck, Jacob Handl, Johannes Eccard, George Kirbye, Orlande de Lassus, Thomas Tallis, Richard Dering, William Byrd, Tomas Luis de Victoria, John Sheppard, Francisco Guerrero, Peter Philips, plus plainsong with the texts taking us from Advent to the birth of Christ, Holy Innocents and Epiphany, with multiple settings of Resonent in Laudibus.

Given the disc's quite focused programme, the variety of texture and style is quite striking so that Sheppard's Reges Tharsis is very different to the earlier Continental composers on the disc. A fine disc, finely sung and one for those who are allergic to carols and the dafter musical traditions of Christmas.

Cantique de Noel - Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge - Delphian
Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge take us to France with their Cantique de Noel: French music for Christmas from Berlioz to Debussy on Delphian, which features Christmas music by Adolphe Adam, Hector Berlioz, Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck, Claud Debussy, Alexandre Guilmant, Joules Massenet, Fernand de La Tombelle as well as arrangements by Gabriel Faure, Gounod and Leon Roques. The opening of the disc gives a good flavour of the approach, we get that hoary old classic O holy night, but stylishly sung in the original French with the two soloists, Clover Willis and Robert Humphries bringing a nice Romantic fervour to their performance. Whilst there are familiar items such as the shepherds farewell from Berlioz' L'enfance du Christ, it is the lesser known pieces which provide the real interest such as Gounod's song of the nuns for women's voices and piano, or Debussy's rather disturbing Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons, again with piano, and Massenet's tiny but delightful La neige.  Definitely a highlight.

Christmas with Sonoro - Resonus
The young choir Sonoro, conductor Neil Ferris, brings its distinctive rich and warm sound to a programme of contemporary and 20th century Christmas pieces on Resonus Classics. Some are carols, like Malcolm Archer's lively A little child there is yborn, but others are definitely not such as Cecilia MacDowell's setting of the O anthem, O Oriens, full of wonderfully rich sustained textures. It is nice to see Betty Roe's music on the disc with her lovely The Holly and the Ivy.

A theme running through the disc is the re-setting of familiar texts, so the programme makes a lovely combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. The contemporary composers on the disc range from John Joubert (born 1927) to Michael Higgins (born 1981), with plenty in between. There are just two older established composers, Herbert Howells and Peter Warlock, a great selection.

Now May We Singer - Choir of Westminster School
Sonoro uses adult singers performing with vibrato to create a striking mature sound. If it is something more youthful you want, then the choir of Westminster School, conductor Timothy Garrad, has an attractive disc of music for Advent and Christmas, Now may we singen, on Signum Classics. The choir uses young voices on the top two lines, mixing boys and girls, and of course the lower two lines use young adults so the whole (numbering 39 voices) has a youthful freshness, focus and energy. Their performance of the first item on the disc, Matthew Martin's Novo profusi gaudio positively explodes with energy.

Again there is a mixture of new and old, it is lovely to see Cecilia MacDowall, Judith Weir, Ghislaine Reece-Trapp and Roxanna Panufnik amongst the contemporary names, and also Alexander Campkin (a Westminster School alumnus), Richard Allain (whose Lullay, myn lyging was commissioned for the disc), Matthew Martin, John Rutter, Andrew Carter, Richard Wilberforce (whose My musick shine was commissioned for the album and sets the 17th century poet George Herbert, another Westminster Alumnus) and James MacMillan's O radiant dawn is there too, in a finely passionate performance. Definitely recommended.

The Darkest Midnight - Papagena - SOMM
Papagena is a five-voice female vocal ensemble, whose music ranges from the Medieval to the present day, all sung unaccompanied.  On their new disc The Darkest Midnight: Songs of Winter and Christmas on SOMM they explore music for Christmas and for Winter. The music on the disc is eclectic, moving from traditional Irish and traditional German, through John Taverner to Joni Mitchell and Ravel arranged Clytus Gottwald, along with contemporary works by Oliver Tarney, Don MacDonald, Suzzie Vango, and Tone Krone. The music on the disc might seem crazily eclectic but they make it work, transitioning perfectly from Joni Mitchell to Ravel, and the group's musicality is never in doubt. They bring a beautiful sense of style and a focused intensity to the music.

Another female group, Juice Vocal Ensemble, provides a different perspective in Snow Queens on Resonus Classics.  The music on the disc is all conceived for three female voice, unaccompanied, and suitable for Christmas and much of the repertoire is taken from the group's calls for new music along with a commissioned work from Emily Hall. So here we have almost an entire disc composed of music by young composers, with two exceptions all were born after 1970. Whilst we do get carols, Kerry Andrew's imaginative  Apples, Plums, Cherries is hardly traditional in style, whilst Anna Snow's arrangement of The Coventry Carol brings out the austere melancholy of the piece. This is a disc full of imaginative textures and striking arrangements, certainly not a conventional Christmas disc. Full of delights, it will please anyone interested in a contemporary take on seasonal celebrations.

Snow Queens - Juice Vocal Ensemble - Resonus
Christmas would not be Christmas without The Snowman, and Howard Blake (who celebrated his 80th birthday this year) has shown himself admirably happy to constantly re-invent his music for the iconic film. On a new disc from Rubicon, Blake has arranged the music for the Liverpool String Quartet, and the narration is done by Sir Ken Dodd who died earlier this year at the age of 91. And in the centre of the work we get Walking in the Air, sung by the treble James Devlin. The ensemble pairs the work with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in an arrangement by Pamela McConnell and the Liverpool String Quartet, which uses a string sextet, and the work is also narrated by Sir Ken.

A proportion of the proceeds from the disc go to The Whitechapel Centre, one of Sir Ken's favourite charities. Sir Ken narrates The Snowman with a nice sense of naturalism and great intimacy, making a delightful complement to Blake's music which is played with great sophistication by the quartet. His narration for Peter and the Wolf is much more in Doddy's comic character and may not appeal to everyone.

Howard Blake: The Snowman - THe Liverpool String Quartet - Rubicon
My final disc is in fact a DVD, an opera based on the Cinderella story so seems entirely appropriate for the season. It is Cinderella written by Alma Deutscher, the prodigy who started composing the work at the age of eight. Here it is performed by Opera San Jose, conducted by Jane Glover and directed by Brad Dalton. The work has had a long development, and for this production Deutscher's revised, expanded version of the piece was newly re-orchestrated. It is a confident and charming piece, inevitably we can hear echoes of existing composers and the work's complex history shows Deutscher willing to re-think as she lives with the work.

  • Carols from Chelsea: The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, James Orford (organ), William Vann (conductor), In-Pensioner George Hatton, SOMM - available from Amazon
  • 100 years of Nine Lessons & Carols: The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, David Willcocks (conductor), Philip Ledger (conductor), Stephen Cleobury (conductor) - available from Amazon
  • An Ely Christmas: The Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Ely Cathedral, Sarah MacDonald (conductor), Regent - available from Amazon
  • The Mystery of Christmas - Greek Kalanda by Cilia Petridou: Jenni Harper, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Alison Smart (sopranos), Sarah Down (piano), Divine Art - available from Amazon
  • Advent Live: The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) - available from Amazon
  • A Renaissance Christmas: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (conductor), Coro - available from Amazon
  •  Cantique de Noel: Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Geoffrey Webber, Delphian - available from Amazon
  • Christmas with Sonoro: Sonoro, Michael Higgins (organ), Neil Ferris (conductor), Resonus Classics - available from Amazon
  • Now may we singen: Choir of Westminster School, Ben Bloor (organ), Timothy Garrard (conductor), Signum Classics - available from Amazon
  • The Darkest Midnight: Papagena, SOMM - available from Amazon
  • Snow Queens: Juice Vocal Ensemble, Resonus - available from Amazon
  • Howard Blake: The Snowman, Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, arr. Pamela McConnell & the Liverpool String Quartet: the Liverpool String Quartet, Sir Ken Dodd, James Devlin, Rubicon - available from Amazon
  • Alma Deutscher: Cinderella: Opera San Jose, Brad Dalton (director), Jane Glover (conductor), SONY - DVD available from Amazon

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Home


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