Saturday 10 March 2012

CD Review - The Little Road to Bethlehem

Just before Christmas we heard Quintessential Voices perform the programme The Little Road to Bethlehem live. This, rather belated, review is of the CD of that same programme which they recorded in February 2011. Quintessential Voices is a 5-man vocal ensemble made up of singing men from Westminster Cathedral  and St. George's,Windsor - Stephen Burrows (counter-tenor), Ben Alden (tenor), Jonathan Bungard (tenor), Jon Saunders (baritone), Will Gaunt (bass). Their programmes typically include spoken text as well as sung items; this programme tells the story of the Nativity, using a wide range of music (plainchant and Perotin to Sally Beamish) plus readings from the Bible and from Kipling (Eddi's Service). The programme is carefully structured into sections, Procession and Annunciation, The Journey to Bethlehem, The Birth of Jesus, The Shepherds and the Magi, Recession. The result is  profoundly satisfying both as a narrative and musically. The group's diction is excellent so that, though the English texts are not printed (you only get the translations for the non-English items), the story is eminently clear.

They open with a lovely carol from Sally Beamish, In the Stillness; this is followed by the Kipling reading. This is the only non-Biblical reading and it seems to work the best, simply I wish they'd found other non-Biblical passages.

Thomas Ravenscroft's Remember O thou man, is followed by Rutter's arrangement of I wonder as I wander and RVW's As Joseph was a walking. This latter is done without counter-tenor; throughout the disc the various items are performed with different combinations of the 5 singers which helps alter the texture and ensures that Burrow's delightful but rather distinctive counter-tenor timbre does not weary.

For the Annunciation reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, I could have done with a more demonstrative performance; something which applied to all the Biblical text, I just wanted them to emote a bit more. This is a narration on a CD not a reading in a service.

Next comes a wonderful, wonderful item, a complete change of mood; Burrow's stunning performance of Perotin's Beata viscera, accompanied just by a drone in the other voices. I wanted more of these and felt that the programme would have been stronger if they had taken more risks with musical style. Guerrero's Alam redemptoris mater comes over as beautifully intimate, sung one to a part in quite a close acoustic.

A nicely shaped account of Gabriel's message arranged by David Willcocks risked sounding a bit thin and etiolated, I particularly wanted more punch and body in the upper voices. The lower voices only featured on an arrangement of a Bara folk-song Christ child's lullaby, with a melody which recalls the folk-song Ca' the yowes.

Following another reading from St Luke we get the CD's title track, The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head with a fine baritone solo (the different voice credits are not listed in the CD booklet so I am uncertain who sings what but I presume the soloist to be Jonathan Saunders). This contrasts with the medieval In natali Domino and RVW's arrangement of O little town of Bethlehem.

A reading from Isaiah follows, with Michael Praetorius's celebratory En natus es Emmanuel, sounding surprisingly modern. The lively 16th century Gaudete is followed by a nicely flexibly reading of Susanni from Richard Rodney Bennett's Five Carols. We lull the Christ child to sleep with Lullay lullow, another medieval carol. Roy Massey's arrangement of Long the night is lovely and rather romantic with a fine tenor solo (Roy Massey was Organist and Master of the Choristers of Hereford Cathedral and President of the Royal College of Organists).

More Gospel of St. Luke follows, then Michael Nicholas's Rise up shepherd an' foller, a spiritual which demonstrates that English singers need to be careful of the spiritual repertoire as, fun though they are, the performances nearly always come over as far to studied and polite; though the group contribute a good tenor solo.

Another Michael Praetorius, Quem pastores ad laudavere which uses a melody which will be very familiar in other guises, again with a fine baritone solo.  Finally in this section Silent night in an arrangement by Burrows. Striking though the arrangement is I confess to preferring versions which stick as close as possible to Gruber's original; here the piece sounds a little too artful.

St. Matthew's account of the Wise Men is followed by Victoria's O regem coeli with a lovely rich texture using only the four lower voices. The first chapter of St. John's Gospel, The word became flesh is the final reading and the disc concludes with Gallus's lively Resonet in laudibus, the more reflective plainchant sequence Qui creavit caelum and RVW's Mummers carol with familiar words but a less familiar tune.

This is a fine recital, very finely performed and recorded; the voices are captured with just the right amount of air round them, but close enough so that the details of the texts are perfectly clear. The large-scale polyphony comes over as nicely intimate and highly personal.

If I have a complaint it is that the pieces, though wide ranging, rely a little too much on the Carols for Choirs / Oxford Book of Carols axis. I wanted more pieces like the Perotin, which come from a different position entirely. I thought that it was a shame that the group could not have found a way to included on of Poulenc's Christmas motets or of one Paul Villette's luscious pieces.

This is far more than a Christmas disc, it makes a nicely satisfying programme which works entirely on its own terms and showcases some very fine singing indeed. I look forward to the group's next disc.

The Little Road to Bethlemen
Quintessential Voices (Stephen Burrows, Ben Alden, Jon Bungard, Jonathan Saunders, William Gaunt)
Recorded February 18/19 2011, Parry Hall, Eton
Quintessential Voices QV01 [65.31]

The disc is available for £10 direct from Quintessential Voices own website.

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