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Christmas Carols
CD 1: Festive Music from Europe and America

CD 2: Nine centuries of seasonal music
CD 3: The Carol Album I: Seven centuries of Christmas music
CD 4: The Carol Album II: Seven centuries of Christmas music
Full details at foot of review
The Taverner Consort, Choir and Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. 1987-1995
VIRGIN CLASSICS 503680 2
[4 CDs: 63:04 + 63:10 + 62:44 + 61:37]




Christmas is without any doubt the most popular feast of the year. It is not a specifically Christian feast any more. Commercial exploitation, all too visible in shops, starting as early as the beginning of fall, is all too evident. The popularity of this season is also reflected by the number of 'Christmas discs' which flood the market every year. From an artistic point of view many of them are of dubious quality and have little or nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas.

In the early Christian church the birth of Jesus wasn't specifically celebrated. In the New Testament there are no indications whatsoever that Christmas was given specific attention. The congregation gathered together on the first day of the week, because it was the day of Christ's resurrection. For the early church every Sunday was Easter, so to speak. In the Eastern-Orthodox Church Easter still is the main feast of the church year, but over the centuries Christmas has gradually taken over that position in the churches of Western Europe. This is reflected in stories and carols which have more to do with popular piety than with the actual story of Jesus' birth as told in the Bible. The church didn't do anything to suppress this development. On the contrary, folk tales and Christmas carols were excellent instruments to spread the teachings of the Church among common people, in particular those with little or no education. As a result a whole repertoire of carols came into existence, some of which are international in character. But most countries also have their own particular carols, with their own texts and music.

The set of four discs reviewed here is a reissue of recordings from the late 1980s and early 1990s. In comparison with the garbage which is presented every year as 'Christmas discs' it is a model of good taste and creative programming. The music selected here is only a small portion of the large amount of music connected in one way or another with Christmas. The repertoire goes from the 12th to the 20th century. It is presented in no chronological or geographical order, which means that one goes from the Middle Ages to the romantic period within a couple of minutes. The advantage is a maximum of variety; the disadvantage is that people who don't like 19th or 20th century music have to keep the remote control of their CD player to hand to skip those items.

Not that there is very much music of those centuries: the largest part of this repertoire was written before 1800 as the tracklist shows. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players are ensembles specialized in renaissance and baroque music and their interpretations are based on historical performance practice; obviously this has influenced the choice of repertoire. The second is that in the 19th and 20th centuries not that much music was written for Christmas - or any Christian feast, for that matter. Composers were usually not in the service of a church and therefore they were not expected to compose music for the highlights of the church year. On top of that a growing number of composers can hardly be considered believers like their pre-1800 counterparts. And Christmas music written in the last two centuries is often scored for much larger forces than the Taverners.

Of course there are many recordings with Christmas music of the renaissance and baroque era in the catalogue. But this set still has a lot to offer. First of all it contains pieces which are hardly known. Composers like De Vidales, Pascha, Flecha or Osiander are not exactly household names, not even in programmes with early music. And I am pretty sure that there are no discs in the catalogue with music by Bendinelli and Thomsen. Interesting also are the pieces by American composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is as yet a little explored part of music history, although Paul Hillier has recorded music by William Billings. This repertoire suites the Taverner Consort well, just as the music of the Middle Ages and renaissance. The singers of the ensemble are all very experienced in this kind of repertoire, and are also well-known as members of other ensembles and as soloists. This repertoire receives completely idiomatic performances.

That is not always the case in German or French baroque music. Music by Praetorius has fared better in the hands of, for instance, the Gabrieli Consort and Players or Musica Fiata. And the best performances of music by Charpentier come from Les Arts Florissants or Le Concert Spirituel, to mention the most well-known ensembles. But the performances on these discs of the pieces by these two composers are alright. I am not very happy, though, with the split of Praetorius' sacred concerto 'In dulci jubilo' into two on disc 2.

The strength of these discs is the performance of either rare repertoire or rather well-known repertoire in different - one may assume often original - versions. The most popular Christmas carol of our time is 'Silent Night', often sung in a most distasteful way, but here it is presented in its original scoring for two voices with guitar and choir. And even the hymn 'Hark! the herald angels sing' which no British Christmas celebration can do without, is sung here in a version which differs from what one usually hears today.

A couple of things should be noticed. On the positive side: Latin texts in medieval English music are pronounced in an anglicized way - historically fully justifiable. As far as I can tell pieces are performed completely - no stanzas seem to be cut. That is a bad habit of many recordings, which Andrew Parrott hasn't copied, thankfully. This means that a simple four-part chorale like 'Christum wir sollen loben schon' by Lucas Osiander lasts 3 minutes - which is risky as many people, in particular non-Germans who haven't grown up with chorales like this, don't like them very much. But one should really give it a try – there’s good chance that one will start to like them, especially as performed here.

It doesn't help, though - and here we come to the negative side - that the booklet fails to provide any lyrics. As I don't know the original releases I can't tell whether they have been omitted in this reissue, but it is a shame, as most of these lyrics are hardly known. Clifford Bartlett has written a good essay with a general overview of the repertoire on these discs, but more detailed information about the music and the composers would have been very useful. I would also have liked to know more about the performers of every item - only the 'soloists' are mentioned - and the instruments they use. Not everyone will recognize the folk instruments in the Gloria by the Czech composer Edmund Pascha. And I am curious to know what piano was used in the two pieces by Liszt. There are some errors in the tracklist as well, which I have corrected as far as possible with the help of the information given at Amazon.com. But some things remain a mystery, for instance why some pieces are referred to as 'anonymous' here and 'traditional' on Amazon or vice versa. That isn't exactly the same. A more careful editing of the booklet would not have gone amiss.

As I said before these discs are a model of good taste and creative programming, and - I'd like to add - generally outstanding performances. For those who look for an alternative for the popular and conventional Christmas repertoire this is a set to look for. I have listened to all four discs practically at a stretch and have never been bored. I am sure you will have a great time listening to these discs in the last weeks of the year.

Johan van Veen

 


Christmas Carols

CD 1: Festive Music from Europe and America
William BILLINGS (1756-1800)

Methinks I see an heav'nly host [02:59]
John FOSTER (1762-1822)

While shepherds watched their flocks by night [05:23]
Joan CEREROLS (1618-1676)

Serafin, que con dulce harmonia [07:29]
Francisco DE VIDALES (?-1702)

Los que fuerren de buen gusto [04:16]
Michael PRAETORIUS (c.1571-1621)

Magnificat super Angelus ad pastores [09:16]
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1634-1704)

In nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi canticum (H 414) [13:39]
Edmund PASCHA (1714-1772)

Christmas Mass in F: Gloria [11:52]
John Francis WADE (1711?-1786)/arr Thomas GREATOREX (1757-1831)

Adeste fideles [04:51]
William BILLINGS

A virgin unspotted [03:19]
CD 2: Nine centuries of seasonal music
Michael PRAETORIUS

In dulci jubilo a 16 (Pars 1) (1619) [04:07]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772)

Noël X (Quand Dieu naquit a Noël) for organ, op. 2,10 [05:19]
Anton VON WEBERN (1883-1945)

Dormi Jesu, op. 16,2 [01:12]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Weihnachtsbaum for piano (S 186): Adeste fideles (S 186,4) [04:41]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)

Hodie nobis celorum Rex a 4 [03:25]
Henri MULET (1878-1967)

Noël (Byzantine Sketches for organ, No 8) [03:42]
Tarquinio MERULA (1594-c.1625)

Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla Nanna (Hor ch'e tempo di dormire) [07:28]
anon (13th c)

Angelus ad virginem [01:27]
Giovanni GABRIELI (1554-1612)

Audite principes a 16 (1615) [06:18]
anon (16th c)

Sweet was the song of the Virgin [02:35]
HILDEGARD OF BINGEN (1098-1179]

O viridissima virga, Ave [04:10]
Franz LISZT

Weihnachtsbaum for piano (S 186): Die Hirten an der Krippe (S 186,3) [04:27]
Malcolm BRUNO (b.1952)

The burning babe [02:55]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)

Weihnachtsmusik [05:14]
anon (15th c)
Lullay, lullow, I saw a swete semly syght (harp) [02:29]
Michael PRAETORIUS

In dulci jubilo a 16 (Pars 2) (1619) [03:42]
CD 3: The Carol Album I: Seven centuries of Christmas music
anon (13th/15th c)

Veni, veni Emmanuel [03:27]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863)

Stille Nacht [03:55]
trad

Il est né, le divin enfant [02:10]
anon (15th c)
Nova! Nova! [01:41]
trad

Marche des rois [01:49]
trad

The Babe of Bethlehem (ed William Walker, 1835) [02:40]
anon (15th c)

Verbum caro: Y la Virgen [01:42]
Jeremiah INGALLS (1764-1838)

Redemption (Glory to God on high) [00:57]
anon (15th c)

This endere nyghth [04:45]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild (BWV 493) [02:03]
trad

Il est né, le divin enfant (instr) [01:09]
trad

God rest ye merry, gentlemen [02:29]
anon (16th c)

Swete was the song the Virgine soong [02:36]
trad

Quem pastores laudavere [01:57]
trad

Quanno nascete ninno [01:59]
Mateo FLECHA Sr (1481-1553)

Riu, riu, chiu (El lobo rabioso) [03:24]
PHILIPPE LE CHANCELIER (13th c)

Gabriel fram heven-king [03:17]
Lucas OSIANDER (1534-1604)

Christum wir sollen loben schon [03:02]
anon (16th c)

The Coventry Carol (Lully, lulla, thow littel tyne child) [03:22]
anon (16th c)

Gaudete! [01:41]
anon (15th c)

Verbum caro: In hoc anni circulo [02:21]
anon (15th c)

Alleluya: A nywe werk is come on honde [05:50]
trad

The Old Year now away is fled [01:51]
trad

Ding Dong! Merrily on high [02:02]
CD 4: The Carol Album II: Seven centuries of Christmas music
Christopher TYE (c.1500-1573)/Richard ALISON (fl. 1592-1606)

While shepherds watched their flocks by night [02:24]
John Henry HOPKINS Jr. (1820-1891)

Three Kings of Orient (We three kings) [04:18]
John Jacob NILES (1892-1980)

I wonder as I wander [03:03]
anon (13th/14th c)

Qui creavit celum (Song of the Nuns of Chester) [04:11]
anon (15th c)

Ther is no rose of swych vertu [03:58]
Cesare BENDINELLI (c1542-1617)

Sonata for 3 trumpets after 'Joseph, lieber Joseph mein' [01:51]
trad

All hayle to the dayes [04:04]
Sarum plainchant

Letabundus [03:44]
John JOUBERT (b.1926)

There is no rose of such virtue [02:41]
anon (17th c)

Quelle est cette odeur agréable? [04:33]
John Jacob NILES

Lullay, thou tiny little child [02:24]
anon (13th c)

Procedenti Puero-Eya! novus annus est [02:38]
Magnus THOMSEN (17th c)

Sonata for 5 trumpets after 'In dulci jubilo' [02:17]
trad

The Lord at first did Adam make [03:57]
trad

O du fröhliche! O du selige! [02:29]
trad (14th c)

Lullay, lullay: As I lay on Yoolis night [07:46]
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)

Hark! The herald angels sing (with organ interludes by Samuel Sebastian WESLEY, (1810-1876)) [05:14]


 


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