Saturday 5 December 2015

Beyond Nine Lessons and Carols, our survey of recent Christmas discs

Buying Christmas discs is always tricky. Do you really want endless variants of the same nine carols, or modern pop re-workings which lose the essential elements of the original music? This Christmas we look at five varied discs each of which has a different take on the Christmas theme. But each performing group does so in their own distinctive yet intelligent way. We move from The Swingles modern re-invention in Yule Songs, through Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway's contemporary take on a traditional carol concert, to Nigel Short and Tenebrae's exploration of lesser known English arrangements seasoned with some Warlock and Bax in A Very English Christmas. Alternatively you might want Renaissance polyphony and there is Stile Antico's latest disc, the beautifully crafted A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas centred on Clemens non Papa's Missa Pastores quidnam vidistisI have also slipped in a disc from last Christmas, the Marian Consort's Christmas with the Shepherds with Jean Mouton's Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus.

The Swingles have produces Yule Songs, Volume II in which the vocal ensemble presents atmospheric new versions of popular standards and not so well known pieces. You can sample their approach with their version of the God bless ye merry gentlemen:

The disc ranges from these traditional reimaginings to recently created pieces, and along the way you get a striking version of John Dankworth's Blow, blow thou Winter wind. It is pure Swingles, but in a slightly Christmas mode and definitely worth investigating if you want something upbeat and imaginative.

If you are looking for something a little more traditional, but still with an intelligent twist then try the new disc from Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway. For Carol from Royal Holloway they are joined by James Kealy (organ), Cecily Beer (harp) and add in readings from Prunella Scales and Timothy West. The programme is a selection traditional items, sometimes in new guise, leavened with quirkier selections. They open with John Rutter's O come, O come Emmanuel which displays the fine musicality of the choir. You can listen to this and relax, enjoying the firmly flexible sound the young people make. Not every item is done in the familiar version, we get Jim Clement's slightly Rutter-esque version of Gabriel's Message, and a version of Away in a Manger by the popular Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo.

William Blake's The Lamb is here but not in John Taverner's setting but one by the American composer George Whitfield Chadwick. One slight frustration of the disc is that though there are complete texts, the various composers and arrangers are not given dates or details so without resorting to Google you have no idea who GW Chadwick is, but his setting of The Lamb has great charm. Other unusual items include Max Reger's lovely Maria Wiegenlied with harp accompaniment, the wonderfully atmospheric A Child's Prayer by Rihards Dubra and Arvo Part's Bogorodiste Dyevo, short but totally delightful. Organist James Kealey gets to show off his skills in Thomas Trotter's outrageous arrangement of Sleigh Ride.

The readings are not from Nine Lessons and Carols, but taken from Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman and Longfellow.

Nigel Short and Tenebrae have produced A Very English Christmas with hardly a traditional carol in sight. True they start with Simon Preston's I saw three ships but all the items on the disc are generally unfamiliar but rewarding. Simon Preston contributes three pieces including the lovely There is no Rose and the haunting On Christmas Day. John Gardner's joyfully familiar Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is here, but so is his A Gallery Carol with a combination of organ and choir that evoked, for me, the carols of William Matthias. Another name familiar from the organ loft is Philip Leger, and there are names less familiar too.

Richard Lloyd was a new name, but his Love came down at Christmas is a little gem, beautifully performed. And similarly Christopher Robinson I know mainly as a conductor but here he contributes a catchy carol Rejoice and be merry. There is even a piece by the late Richard Hickox, a delightful The Birds.

The centrepiece of the disc is a sequence of Peter Warlock pieces, Benedicamus Domino, Adam lay ybounden, I saw a fair maiden,  Balulalow and As dewe in Aprylle along with Bax's lovely I sing of a Maiden. All the items are beautifully performed in Tenebrae's trademark style. If you enjoy the Nine Lessons and Carols but are looking for less familiar repertoire then this should delight.

Another distinctive look at familiar repertoire is Stile Antico's A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Chorus Music for Christmas. Here we get music by Michael Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Jacob Handl,, Hieronymu Praetorius, Johannes Eccard and Hans Leo Hassler. Names familiar to those who love Renaissance choral music but here the repertoire includes some interestingly lesser known items along with the familiar. Michael Praetorius's Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem is an unfamiliar take on a familiar tune, whilst his arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen will be familiar to choral singers but nonetheless welcome in this finely crafted performance. The main item on the disc is Clemens Non Papa's mass and motet Pastores quidnam vidistis, perfectly balanced five-part polyphony and the ideal antidote to Christmas musical excess.

Johannes Eccard, Jacob Handle and Hans Leo Hassler are all names familiar to me, but the repertoire on this disc was all new. And it is certainly welcome to learn such music in finely intelligent versions as these. Stile Antico is a 12 voice vocal ensemble that performs conductorless and is famous for the purity and intelligence off their performances. Celebrating their 10th anniversary, this disc shows they are on peak form and certainly this would be the top of my Christmas stocking.

The Marian Consort, director Rory McCleery, take a motet by Jean Mouton, Quaeramus cum pastoribus as their starting point on their 2014 disc, Christmas with the Shepherds. The motet remained in the repertoire of the choir of Sistine Chapel for over 100 years so when Christobal de Morales joined the choir it was natural that he produce a parody mass based on Mouton's motet. The disc includes other motets by Mouton, Puer natus est nobis and Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe, a shadowy figure about whom little is known, plus Morales Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis? plus a motet by Annibale Stabile using the same text as the Mouton motet which opens the programme. This is a beautifully balanced and imaginative programme, one sung with the Marian Consort's familiar blend of musicality and vibrancy.

Which one you choose depends on your taste (or the taste of the person to whom you are giving it), and frankly I would be happy with any of them but have to admit that it is the Stile Antico disc which will get played the most when Christmas is past.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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