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Decca Phase 4
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Frohlocket ihr Völker auf Erden [1:22]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
The Little Road to Bethlehem [3:08]
Bob CHILCOTT (b.
Shepherd’s Carol [2:56]
German 14th Century arr. John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Quem pastores Laudavere [1:42]
Mary’s Lullaby* [3:34]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Coventry Carol [3:06]
Jonathan RATHBONE (b. 1957)
Corpus Christi Carol [4:25]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Illuminare Jerusalem* [2:43]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
O magnum mysterium [6:02]
French trad. arr. Stephen
JACKSON (b. 1951)
Naji HAKIM (b. 1955)
Ding dong! Merrily on high [2:14]
Humphrey CLUCAS (b. 1941)
Love came down at Christmas* [2:04]
Paul EDWARDS (b.
No small wonder* [2:38]
Franz GRUBER arr. Jonathan
Silent Night [3:55]
John GARDNER (b. 1917)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day*[1:51]
Arr. Nigel SHORT (b.
Away in a manger* [3:09]
Arr. Malcolm SARGENT (1895-1967)
Hawaiian Lullaby [2:14]
Mel TORMÉ arr. Ward
SWINGLE (b. 1927)
Christmas Song [3:20]
English trad. arr. Andrew
CARTER (b. 1939)
The Twelve Days of Christmas [5:17]
*Jeremy Filsell (organ)
rec. St. Jude’s, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 10-12
texts and translations included
GUILD GMCD7314 [60:06]
The Vasari Singers have
a substantial number of recordings to their credit so I was a
to learn that this is their first Christmas disc. Their conductor,
Jeremy Backhouse, directs them in a stimulating programme,
which combines some familiar carols, albeit some of them
in new guises, and an enticing number of newer Christmas
first thing to say about this recital is that not only is
the singing consistently superb but also the attention to
detail is tremendous. I wouldn’t normally follow Christmas
carols in a score but several of the pieces, including those
by Judith Weir, Morten Lauridsen and Andrew Carter, are contained
in the enterprising collection of carols entitled Noël! (ed.
David Hill, Novello, 2000). Out of interest I followed the
music of those pieces as I listened. Although Jeremy Backhouse
introduces one or two interpretative ideas of his own, all
the detailed markings included by the composers are fully
respected. That may sound like a very obvious point but it
shows the care that has gone into this production. Backhouse
and his singers certainly haven’t approached this assignment
as “just a disc of carols” and it makes a world of difference.
The listener will be struck from the
very outset by the fresh, joyful singing
in the Mendelssohn item, which makes
an excellent curtain-raiser here. The
performance of Michael Head’s lovely
Christmas song is distinguished by some
extremely pure singing on the part of
the Vasari’s sopranos. Marginally I
prefer this little gem in its choral
dress rather than as a solo song.
further into the programme, I greatly enjoyed the performance
of Rutter’s Mary’s Lullaby. Some people turn their
noses up at Rutter’s Christmas music but I’m not among them.
At its best it’s melodious and communicative and Mary’s Lullaby is
one of his best. It’s sung quite beautifully here. But it
was a very shrewd piece of programme building to follow it
with the Kenneth Leighton piece, which reflects the more
serious side of the Incarnation and the events surrounding
it in music that’s astringent, though not excessively so.
Fiona McWilliams contributes a marvellous soprano solo in
Rathbone’s Corpus Christi Carol also reflects the
darker side of the human condition – I’m not sure the text
is truly a Christmas one, but no matter. This is a fine setting
that seems to involve a semi-chorus placed remotely, as in
Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin. The music flows
but is quite intense, as befits the subject matter. I was
also impressed with another, very different setting, Naji
Hakim’s exuberant and harmonically extravagant version of Ding
dong! Merrily on high (2001). Most of the pieces on this
disc require an expert choir to bring them off, but none
more so than this Hakim piece.
familiar is Morten Lauridsen’s rapt O magnum mysterium.
This luminous piece is well on the way to becoming a modern
Christmas classic. The music looks relatively simple on the
printed page, especially as it’s quite slow moving, but don’t
be deceived: it requires the utmost control from the choir.
There’s a wonderful clarity of texture about this superb
Vasari performance but this is not attained at the price
of the sense of mystery, which this piece should always create.
The choir is just as successful in the spare, angular harmonies
and demanding rhythms of Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem.
This is given a thrillingly alert and clear performance.
few of the settings require organ accompaniment and what
a luxury it is to have a virtuoso of the calibre of Jeremy
Filsell on hand. He comes into his own particularly in Stephen
Jackson’s inventive setting of Noël Nouvelet. In fact,
it’s no disrespect to any choir undertaking this piece to
say that a great deal of the interest lies in the organ part.
The writing for organ is no mere pastiche but, appropriately,
sounds very French indeed. Filsell makes a telling contribution
to this rich, sophisticated arrangement. He’s also involved,
though a little less critically, in John Gardner’s Tomorrow
shall be my dancing day. The music is marked “fresh
and lively” and that’s exactly how it’s done here. In fact,
I can’t ever recall hearing it taken so briskly but, with
crisp articulation from the choir, the chosen tempo works
brilliantly. This truly exuberant performance makes other
accounts that I’ve heard sound cautious and my only regret
is that Jeremy Backhouse, like many other conductors, eschews
Gardner’s optional percussion parts.
standards are heard in new arrangements. Jonathan Rathbone’s
version of Silent Night is correctly described by
Jeremy Backhouse as “sumptuous”. It stays on just the right
side of the sweetness line and I enjoyed it very much. The
hushed last verse, in dense harmonies, is particularly effective
and is underpinned by some lovely, very low notes in the
bass part. Equally successful is Nigel Short’s take on Away
in a manger. As Backhouse says, it is “lush”, but I think
it also captures the essential tenderness of this modest,
well-loved little carol.
conclude the proceedings we’re offered three sweetmeats.
I’m afraid I’ve never had a sufficiently sweet tooth to enable
me to enjoy Sir Malcolm Sargent’s carol arrangements. For
me they’re very much of their time and that time passed a
good few years ago. However, the Vasari’s gorgeous rendition
of Hawaiian Lullaby almost persuaded me. I needed
no persuasion, however, to lap up Ward Swingle’s arrangement
of Mel Tormé’s enduring secular standard, Christmas Song.
Swingle is the choir’s patron and Jeremy Backhouse writes
of this arrangement that Swingle “released [it] from his
private archive for us alone.” Well, if by some chance Ward
Swingle should ever read this review can I urge him that
this warm, stylish and, in a nice sense, sentimental arrangement
is far too good to remain unpublished, especially when sung
as well as it is here.
last word is with Andrew Carter and his arrangement of The
Twelve Days of Christmas. Written as long ago
as 1971, though revised two years later, this is, incredibly,
its first recording. As the days unfold nothing untoward
seems to be happening until we get to the sixth day of Christmas,
which is where the mischief begins. I won’t spoil the surprises
for those who’ve not heard the arrangement before. Suffice
to say, Carter throws umpteen musical jokes into the mix
and the whole thing is tremendous fun. Needing a very skilled
choir to bring it off, I suggest that it receives here possibly
the best performance it can ever have had.
is one of the finest and most enjoyable Christmas discs to
come my way in a very long time, combining some quite stretching
musical fare with some fun items. Offhand, I can’t think
of a better disc of Christmas music for you to find under
your tree on December 25th.
see also review
by John Sheppard
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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