Thursday 3 December 2020

Christmas CD roundup

Bristol Brass Consort
Bristol Brass Consort
This year's round up of discs for Christmas and Advent proved to be quite an eclectic mix. There are carols of course, traditional, modern and everything in between, but we also visit 17th century Puebla with its lively villancicos (showing that nuns singing with guitars in church was certainly not a new phenomenon) and skip back 800 years for a programme of medieval carols with readings. Contemporary music features quite strongly, with at least one disc featuring exclusively contemporary composers. 
Also featured rather too strongly is Britten's A Ceremony of Carols in various different combinations of forces. Alongside discs from Christmas regulars, it is nice to see other choirs such as Clifton Cathedral Choir, and the choir of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. 
Perhaps the most surprising disc is a large scale work for male voice choir, children's choir and orchestra by a Georgian composer, definitely one of my highlights this year.
Christmas in Puebla - Delphian
Around 1620, the Spanish composer Juan Gutierrez de Padilla left Spain and travelled to the Americas and found a position at the cathedral in Puebla in what was then New Spain (now Mexico). Siglo de Oro and Patrick Allies' Christmas in Puebla on Delphian seeks to recreate what Christmas would have been like in Puebla Cathedral in the mid 17th century, combining the high Baroque of Padilla's Missa Joseph fili David with the lively villancicos of local composers, many using indigenous languages. 

These villancicos are joyful, lively and life-enhancing with their use of instruments (the line-up culled from cathedral records) and the instrumental contributions (without the lively dance measures) bleed into the mass propers resulting in a highly engaging programme.

Christmas in Puebla - Delphian - Amazon    

O Nata Lux - Berlin Classics

Zurich Chamber Singers, conductor Christian Erny, have also a compare and contrast ethos in their beautifully sung disc O Nata Lux on Berlin Classics. Here we have motets and psalms by Thomas Tallis, Lucas Osiander (1534-1604), Bach, Victoria, Hieronymous Praetorius, plus more recent composers Madeleine Perissas (1906-1971), Britten, Bruch, Holst and contemporary composers Rhiannon Randle, Stephan Claas and Marcus Paus. 

With both Randle and Paus we hear modern settings of texts also set by Tallis (O nata lux) and by Victoria (O magnum mysterium). The theme of the programme is darkness out of light, and with such intelligent programming and fine singing it makes an ideal companion to Advent.

O Nata Lux - Berlin Classics - Amazon

The Bristol Brass Consort (founded 1985) features a classic line-up of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tube, though we get a bit of flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet too. Their Festive Brass programme features arrangements of an eclectic mix well-known classics such as Ding Dong Merrily on High, Es ist ein Ros'entsprungen and Angelus ad Virginem plus more modern items such as Mel Torme's Christmas Song, all in imaginative arrangements with some terrific playing 

Festive Brass - Bristol Brass Consort - Amazon

Ave Rex Angelorum - CRD

Rather than give us a mix of favourite seasonal music, the Choir of Keble College (a mixed voice ensemble of choral scholars, volunteers and lay clerks), conductor Matthew Martin, in Ave Rex Angelorum on CRD set out to trace the liturgical journey from the Feast of Christ the King (the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar before Advent), through Advent and Christmas to Epiphany using a mixture of plainchant, carols and modern pieces so that get the hymn Lo! He comes with clouds descending but also Britten's A Hymn to St Columba

With music by Grayston Ives, Matthew Martin, Stephen Cleobury, Richard Rodney Bennett, Simon Preston, Carl Rutti, Lennox Berkeley and John Tavener, 20th century and contemporary composers get a good look in but there is plenty of chant too, including the plainsong Gloria, plus a real sense of the liturgical journey. 

Ave Rex Angelorum - CRD - Amazon

Westminster Cathedral apart, we don't hear much on disc from the choirs of Roman Catholic cathedrals so it lovely to be able to welcome a disc from Clifton Cathedral Choir (a mixed voice ensemble), conductor David Ogden. Gaudete! on Hoxa is described as carols and organ music, but the basic structure of the disc is that of Britten's A Ceremony of Carols performed by the women of the choir with harpist Catherine Snelson, and interleaved with these are a variety of carols and Christmas pieces from Bach and Brahms to John Gardner and William Mathias.

Gaudete! - Hoxa - Amazon

A Ceremony of Carols - Harmonia Mundi

A Ceremony of Carols
on Harmonia Mundi from the choir of Clare College, Cambridge (mixed voice choir, students and choral scholars), conductor Graham Ross also features Britten's A Ceremony of Carols but this time in Julius Harrison's version for mixed choir and harp (Tanya Houghton). This is a version which rather divides critics, I have to confess to preferring the original version but I am almost convinced by Clare's superb rendition. 

Before this there is a generous selection of Britten's smaller scale choral items from A Hymn to the Virgin (1930/1934) to A Hymn of St Columba (1962) along with works by Britten's teachers, John Ireland and Frank Bridge, and Gustav Holst and we end with one of the songs from Friday Afternoons in a version for choir and harp. 

A Ceremony of Carols - Harmonia Mundi  - Amazon

Britten: St Nicolas - Signum Classics

Britten's St Nicolas is not strictly a Christmas piece but given the iconography of the medieval saint it fits well hear. Issued on Signum Classics the disc is from the Crouch End Festival Chorus (large mixed voice choir), conductor David Temple with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Britten wrote the work for a choir of amateurs (it is engagingly challenging yet perfectly possible, stretching the singers in an enjoyable way, and I speak from experience, singing it at the age of 17 in Lincoln Cathedral was a major musical moment), so Crouch End Festival Chorus (one of London's best non-professional large choirs) is ideal for this and they sing with sophistication, commitment and engagement. Mark LeBrocq gives a strong account of the title role. 

The accompanying work is A Ceremony of Carols (again), here sung by 40 women from the choir (with harpist Sally Pryce) and before you wonder about women in the work, its premiere was given by a women's choir. The singers from Crouch End need no excusing, they sing with a lovely fresh and engaging sound, this is a version I could happily live with.

Britten: St Nicolas, A Ceremony of Carols - Signum Classics - Amazon

A Ceremony of Carols - Signum Classics

Another A Ceremony of Carols, this time from the choir of Queen's College, Oxford (mixed voice choir, choral scholars), conductor Owen Rees. Again we use Britten's original version, here sung with lightness and style by the young women from the choir (19 of them) with harpist Lucy Wakeford. A lovely performance but you can't help wishing that choirs and record companies ran a 'clash list', and that given Christmas, a choir and a harp, other ideas could not be thought up. Has no-one thought of doing Alan Bush's 1946 cantata A Winter Journey for choir, string quintet and harp (or piano)!

Rees couples the work with attractive sequences of carols, alternating music Hildegard of Bingen and Michael Praetorius with contemporary composers Judith Weir, David Blackwell, Jonathan Dove, Dobrinka Tabakova, and Toby Young.

A Ceremony of Carols - Signum Classics - Amazon

Opus Anglicanum - Medieval Carols

Opus Anglicanum is a group of five professional singers (John Bowen, David De Winter, James Birchall, Stephen Burrows, Roland Robertson) who perform with a reader (Zeb Soanes), performing music from the medieval to the contemporary. After somewhat overdosing on more modern carols it was a pleasure to turn to their disc, Medieval Carols, of early plainchant and music by Perotin, Josquin, Walter Lambe, William Cornysh and Obrecht interspersed with seasonal readings given by Zeb Soanes (you may know him as a BBC Radio newsreader or as the author of a series of children's books about Gaspard the Fox!) from John Wycliffe, and Lancelot Andrewes' Christmas 1622 sermon (source of TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi). 

A lot of the music is chant-based and the five singers perform in a style which sounds as if they have been doing it all their life. There is something wonderfully bracing about this disc, it plunges us into a world of 800 years ago without much apology and the results are truly immersive. Definitely one to listen to again and again. Rather usefully, there are two discs, one featuring the programme with readings, the other with just the music. And if you are around on 16 December, they are live streaming a concert from their website.

Medieval Carols: A Sequence of words and music for Christmas - Opus Anglicanum - direct from ensemble's website

Gaudete! - Regent Records

Also called Gaudete! and recorded by another West country choir, the new disc on Regent Records features the choir of Bath Abbey (boy trebles, girls choir and lay clerks) conducted by Huw Williams. The programme moves from a lively version of the 16th century Gaudete! (with Tim Palmer on drum) and then moves through carols and contemporary pieces including Eric Whitacre, Philip Stopford, Paul Edwards and Morten Lauridsen, plus arrangements by John Rutter. 

Of particular interest to Tavener lovers perhaps might be a setting of Blake's The Lamb by Henry Walford Davies. The disc showcases the talents of the treble line in various ways, boys on their own, girls on their own and together.

Gaudete! - Regent Records - Amazon

Alpha & O: Music for Advent & Christmas - Resonus

Alpha & O: Music for Advent & Christmas
on Resonus Classics also features multiple with Edward Wickham conducting the choirs of St Catharine's College, Cambridge (the mixed voice college choir drawn mainly from undergraduates, and the girls' choir). The disc begins with Judith Weir's rather lovely My Guardian Angel and then continues with the wonderful textures of Hannah Kendall's Nativity

The disc mixes plainchant with contemporary pieces to striking and stunning effect, and features the premiere recording of Christopher Fox's setting of the O Anthems plus Diana Burrell's Green groweth the holly, plus music by Paul Chihara, Joanna Forbes L'Estrange and Jeremy Thurlow's Magnificat for upper voices, organ and tape. This imaginative disc is a boon for anyone looking for fine singing and contemporary resonances in their Christmas stocking.

Alpha & O: Music for Advent & Christmas - Resonus - Amazon

A Winter's Night - Signum Classics

Another imaginative disc is A Winter's Night from Signum Classics in which Winchester College Choir (boy trebles, lay clerks, students at the school including at least one woman alto), conductor Howard Ionascu, are joined by Onyx Brass for a disc of music for choir and brass (and sometimes percussion from Sebastian Guard and organ from Benjamin Cunningham). 

The centrepiece is Cecilia McDowall's striking cantata A Winter's Night, receiving its first recording in the original orchestration for choir and around it are well known works from the Christmas repertoire arranged for similar forces, and the choir benefits from the fact that composer Oliver Tarney is on the school's music staff.

A Winter's Night - Signum Classics - Amazon

Hark! What a Sound: Advent from Dublin - Regent Records

Hark! What a Sound: Advent from Dublin
on Regent Records gives us a chance to hear another infrequently recorded cathedral choir, that of St Patrick's (Anglican) Cathedral, Dublin conducted by Stuart Nichoson and David Leigh. The choir includes boy trebles, a girls choir, lay vicars choral and choral scholars, so we have a mix of men and women on the alto line. The cathedral is unique in Britain and Ireland in maintaining a daily sung Matins. 

Here we begin with Judith Weir's Drop down, ye heavens, from above and then the programme unfolds centred round the O Anthems, here sung in plainchant versions from the Springfield Antiphonal (c1300), alongside music by Stanford, Howells, RVW, Otto Goldschmidt, Richard Terry, Elizabeth Poston (guess!), David Cooper (1949-2008), and Jack Oades (born 1994), who is organist and assistant director of music at the cathedral.

Hark! What a Sound: Advent from Dublin - Regent Records - Amazon

Be Merry - Signum

Still in Dublin, but a rather different sound world, the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (mixed voice choir, student choral scholars), conductor Desmond Early, join forces with the Irish Chamber Orchestra for Be Merry on Signum Classics. A disc which puts a modern take on well-known and not so well known carols. So we move from the traditional Irish Wexford Carol to Have yourself a merry little Christmas and even Old Lang Syne

The composers and arrangers involved include the Irish composers Eoghan Desmond, Elaine Agnew, Timothy Stephens, Fionntán O Cearbhaill, Desmond Earley, and Adhamhnán Mac Domhnaill, plus John Hoybe (Denmark), Andrej Makor (Slovenian), Ivo Antognini (Swiss) and Linda Kachelmeier (USA). A disc full of things you might hear nowhere else, all sensitively performed.

Be Merry - Signum Classics - Amazon

Advent Live: Volume 2 - St John's Cambridge/Signum Classics

Advent Live: Volume 2
on St John's College, Cambridge's own imprint (on Signum Classics) features Andrew Nethsingha and his choir (boy trebles, male choral scholars and lay clerks) recorded live at the college's annual Advent carol service in 2018 and 2019. The music is eclectic, we hear four of the O Anthems (plainchant) along with music from Herbert Howells, Otto Goldschmidt, Hugo Distler, Elizabeth Maconchy, Telemann, Britten, Hugo Wolf, Bach plus contemporary composers Jonathan Dove, Arvo Part, Cecilia McDowall, Gabriel Jackson, John McCabe, Anthony Milner, Judith Bingham, Paul Manz, Christopher Robinson. 

An attractive programme, very finely sung. This is a seasonal disc without being hackneyed and the choir is on very good form at the moment. If you are interested you can still catch the 2020 service on BBC Sounds.

Advent Live: Volume 2 - St John's Cambridge/Signum Classics - Amazon

Christmas Trilogy - CuGate Classics/Golden Fleece Classics

You only have to listen to the opening 30 seconds of the disc to know that Christmas Trilogy from CuGate Classics is something different. We have the resonant and distinctive sounds of a Georgian male-voice choir (there is a strong Georgian folk-tradition of polyphonic male voice ensembles) and brass instruments. This is the Christmas Trilogy by the Georgian composer Vakhtang Kakhidze. Originally written in 2000 to a commission from a Swiss brass band, the three movement work combined male voice choir, children's choir and brass band. This disc features the composer's 2003 version for full orchestra. 

It is a large-scale work featuring an exuberant opening movement, more intense Elegy and the long Advent Trilogy final movement. The text uses three languages, Georgian, Russian and German, and the musical style mixes Western classical with traditional Georgian idioms to striking effect. It receives a terrific performance from Rustavi Choir, Mdzlevari Boys’ Choir, Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, conductor Vakhtang Kakhidze. Any choir looking for something different for next year need look no further, and I would love to hear the original brass band version! 

The recording dates from 2017 but the original issue was hard to get hold of, and this re-issue is available with far wider distribution.

Christmas Trilogy - CuGate Classics/Golden Fleece Classics - Amazon


Elsewhere on this blog
  • A record dedicated to those who believe in ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.’ - Bryce Morrison on Nelly Akopian-Tamarina's Slavonic Reflections - CD review
  • In Motion: United Strings of Europe's debut disc features three contemporary works alongside two classics in a strongly coloured programme  - CD review
  • Revolving Rondo: Nils Klöfver's engaging recital explores the work of virtuoso guitarist composers from the 16th century to the present day - Cd review
  • From Handel's contemporaries to a forgotten Malcolm Arnold opera: I chat to conductor John Andrews about reviving neglected music  - interview
  • Ohrwurm: recorder player Tabea Debus delightful debut recital on Delphian  - CD review
  • A theatrical family & a damaged dancer: Christoph Loy's new production of Rusalka at the Teatro Real, Madrid - opera review
  • Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias  - CD review
  • Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement from violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Yulia Chaplina - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet - CD review
  • Despite lockdown, Handel's Ariodante returns to the main stage of Covent Garden  - opera review
  • A restlessness with the present: soprano Katharine Dain chats about her new recital disc Regards sur l'infini - interview
  • Home

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