To many people in the English-speaking world modern Christmas carol
settings are inextricably linked with the name of John Rutter. Now along
comes this CD to show that there is another English composer producing
excellent work in this musical field – and others!
John Rutter’s music is widely known and I mention
his name as a point of reference for those to whom the name of Andrew
Carter may be less familiar. Carter is very much his own man but I hope
neither he nor John Rutter, a composer whose vocal music I also admire
very much, will be affronted if I say there seem to me to be a number
of similarities between the two of them. Firstly, both write accessible
music in a modern idiom but in a way that respects and builds on tradition.
Neither commits the cardinal sin of writing music which is so esoteric
that they leave their audiences behind but, equally, neither patronises
the audience; there is genuine substance to their music. Thirdly, both
composers write music which is invariably pleasing to the ear and, in
the case of their vocal music, rewarding to sing but, as I know from
personal experience, their music presents performers with many challenges.
In addition, both produce music which is immaculately crafted. Finally,
both have a good eye for a text and, crucially, possess strong melodic
gifts. For all these priceless virtues both composers deserve the thanks
and active support of listeners and performers alike.
Andrew Carter was born in 1939. Though he is a native
of Leicestershire he has been fortunate enough to spend much of his
musical career in the wonderful medieval city of York. Initially he
taught music at one of the city’s schools and sang as a lay clerk in
the Minster choir under Francis Jackson. In 1965 he founded a chamber
choir, the Chapter House Choir which, in the seventeen years of his
directorship, developed a national reputation. After a year in New Zealand
in 1984 directing a number of choirs, he returned to York and a career
as a full-time composer and conductor. Vocal music has formed a major
part of his output to date, including many anthems and other pieces
of church music. He was commissioned to write a mass setting, the Missa
Sancti Pauli for the 1997 tercentenary of St. Paul’s Cathedral and
works for chorus and orchestra have included settings of the Benedicite,
Te Deum, and Laudate Dominum. Over the years his music
has become increasingly well known in the USA and, indeed, several important
commissions have come from that side of the Atlantic.
I must declare a slight "interest" here.
In common, I suspect, with many other choral singers I have sung a couple
of Andrew Carter’s carols over the years. However, earlier this year
I had the opportunity to get to know one of his larger scale works when
the choir of which I am a member prepared and then gave three performances
of one of his most recent works, the aforementioned Laudate Dominum.
This setting of Psalm 148 was completed in late 1998. Lasting about
20 minutes it is a thoroughly enjoyable and effective work which both
our singers and our audiences took to. I commend it to other choirs.
This present CD should also whet the appetites of
choirs for they will find much in its contents to interest them, I think.
The programme contains twenty-two carols and two Christmas organ pieces.
Of the carols seven are original compositions and the remainder are
arrangements of carols, some better known than others. Many of the arrangements
were written for the Chapter House Choir’s annual candlelit carol concerts
in the Chapter House of York Minster from which the choir took its name.
Several of the carols, starting with A maiden most gentle (track
1), have featured in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s
College, Cambridge and, indeed Angelus ad Virginem (track 4)
was written specifically for King’s. Carter himself has provided the
words for two of the arranged carols and, indeed, he supplies his own
texts for four of his original compositions as well. I suspect that
most of the items are receiving their first recordings.
The performers are the Quire of London, which I infer
from the notes is an ad-hoc body of twenty singers, presumably professional.
They sing very well indeed, blending beautifully, with a lovely, pure
soprano line topping off the ensemble. Diction is excellent throughout
and the tuning is impeccable. Accompanying them in several of the items
and playing two short solos is the distinguished Director of Music at
St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Scott.
In a programme of twenty four items it’s only possible
to mention a few highlights. However, in so doing I ought to say that
all the pieces on this disc are fresh and appealing. The melodies, whether
original or not, are memorable and the harmonic language is accessible
(though never cloying) and interesting.
Andrew Carter’s very effective arrangement of O come, O come Emmanuel
has appeared on disc before, on Hyperion’s 1997 recording, ‘Advent
at St. Paul’s’ (CDA 66994). There, as on the present disc, it is followed
very suitably by Carter’s splendid Toccata for organ on the same melody
(tracks 15 & 16). The 1961 three manual organ at St. Alban’s, Holborn
is not such a big beast as the St. Paul’s instrument (though it is clearly
a fine organ with ample power, where needed). So John Scott, who also
plays on the Hyperion disc and who premiered the Toccata in 1995, doesn’t
quite have the same range of tonal resources available to him this time
round. On the other hand, the acoustic of St. Alban’s is nowhere near
as echoing as that of St. Paul’s. Consequently, what the present recording
may slightly lack in sheer power it more than makes up for in greater
clarity. Personally, I have a sneaking preference for the Hyperion performance
which has just a touch more grandeur, especially in the pedals. The
main point, however, is that the Toccata is a superb display piece and
it is played here with all the virtuosity you’d expect from John Scott.
In a much quieter vein he also offers another solo, the Canon on Forest
Green, the tune associated with O little town of Bethlehem
On the other hand, I have a distinct preference for the present version
of the hymn itself over the St. Paul’s account. The St. Paul’s choir
sing the first verse in unison and with organ accompaniment but I find
it works much better here sung a capella. The recorded sound
is much better balanced too. My only regret is that the choir couldn’t
have been recorded singing it in procession.
Carter’s original carols are, without exception, very
fine. The Chanticleer Carol (track 3) contains flowing harmonies
and some unexpected melodic turns. The word painting is also very acute.
Sweet was the song the Virgin sang (track 9) is set, most appropriately,
for ladies voices only. It’s a tender, very feminine setting of gentle
poignancy. I also liked I come from highest heaven (track 10)
where the textures and harmonies are nicely varied in each verse and
the important organ part is much more than a "mere" accompaniment
(a common feature throughout the programme). The ending of this carol,
with the word ‘balulalow’ spiralling gently upwards to the final cadence,
is particularly effective. The exuberant Hodie Christus natus est
(track 12) was apparently written to be rehearsed and performed in one
day by youth choirs – quite a challenge I should have thought. Best
of all among the original carols, I think, is There is no rose
(track 17). This features harmonies of gentle dissonance and wide-ranging
melody. For much of the music’s course the tempo is slow and the mood
subdued but there is a telling break into joyful exuberance at the words
‘the angels sungen the shepherds to Gloria in excelcis Deo’.
All the carol arrangements here are excellent and
strike me as being most effective. Crucially, as in the lovely Polish
Carol, the arrangement respects the original melody and enhances
it. Most traditional carols are essentially simple little pieces and
it is all too easy for a modern arrangement to overwhelm them. Never
does one have the sense that this is happening here. Sample the utterly
charming Austrian Yodel Carol (track 23)
Two arrangements were actually made for a particular singer who sang
with the Chapter House Choir for a while, I believe, and has since gone
on to an illustrious career. This is none other than Lynne Dawson, who
happens to be one of my own very favourite sopranos. Andrew Carter arranged
the two Spanish items included here specifically for her to sing. Spanish
Lullaby (track 11) is a setting of great tenderness and sincerity
for soprano solo and wordless chorus. It has a simple sophistication
about it which is most affecting. It is raptly sung here by Joanne
Lunn who is just as excellent in the dancing, irresistibly joyful Spanish
Carol (track 20). Here one feels only the castanets are missing!
During my own time in York as a student in the early
1970s I never attended a Chapter House Choir concert (something I now
much regret.) However, I know the glorious building from which the choir
took its name. I can imagine, therefore, just how atmospheric their
candlelit carol concerts there must have been. Often the encore to these
concerts would be the piece with which this CD concludes, Stille
Nacht (track 24) Andrew Carter’s simple, faithful arrangement, full
of Christmas peace, brings this recital to a tranquil close. The performance
of this item, and indeed, all the preceding twenty-three tracks is exemplary.
The recordings were made in the church of St. Albans,
Holborn and the engineers have produced a most truthful, realistic and
musical sound picture. The voices are recorded clearly and the organ
has been captured superbly. Everything has great presence and the balance
between singers and organ is excellent. The accompanying booklet is
very well produced and contains texts and, where appropriate, translations
of all the vocal items. The notes are by the composer himself and are
succinct, witty and interesting.
In summary, this is a delightful, atmospheric and most enjoyable Christmas
CD which I hope will have a wide circulation. Its contents are nicely
varied and will appeal to a wide audience, I’m sure. I do hope that
before too long some enterprising company will undertake recordings
of some of his larger scale works.
Recommended with enthusiasm.
Available from Amazon (link above) or York Ambisonic (ACC), PO Box 66,
Lancaster, England, LA2 6HS (fax 44 (0)1524 824420) In the UK the CD
should also be available through record shops. (Quote YORK CD 169 and
In the USA, Oxford University Press in New York will supply and the
disc is also to be found on the Gothic
Records website (and in their catalogue). The OUP postal address
is Oxford University Press, Music Department, 198 Manhattan Avenue,
New York NY 10016. Fax 212 726 6441.
The Andrew Carter website
gives a track listing and the option to download a UK or US order form.