The Carol Singers’ Carol [3:17]
Mirabile Dictu [3:20]
The Advent Carol [3:48]
Christmas Flowers [3:22]
The Trees [5:44]
Let it be cold [3:02]
A Miracle [3:36]
An Angel [4:15]
New Boy Born [3:39]
The Gold of Straw [3:53]
Mary’s Carol [3:29]
Each Child’s Name [3:47]
Call it Nazareth [4:26]
We Believe [3:23]
The Present Song [5:18]
This lovely disc is the finest offering to have come my way this Christmas. The Manchester Carols is a cycle of poems by Carol Ann Duffy set to music by Sasha Johnson Manning. Premiered in 2007 at the Royal Northern College of Music, the aim of the writers was to make the carol contemporary again and to reawaken us to its potential power in the 21st century. In this they have succeeded remarkably well, producing thought-provoking poetry which engages with the modern world and music which is instantly appealing and eminently singable. The orchestration is light and airy, captured in fantastic Naxos sound that puts us right in the midst of the performers. I was a little worried when I saw that there were no sung texts included in the CD booklet, but the annunciation of the Manchester Carollers (aka the BBC Daily Service Singers) is so good that you can make out nearly every word.
The musical settings are simple and mostly strophic, making them easy to follow, and Johnson Manning’s excellent melodic gift is evident in every number. She also shows herself an extremely capable orchestrator as each and every number feels entirely appropriate in its choice of instrumentation, from the glinting bell-like sounds of the opening Carol Singer’s Carol to the simple piano accompaniment of Mary’s Carol.
From the outset the genial atmosphere is established, as is the composer’s ingenuity with, for example, the fine idea of continually adding instruments to the texture of The Advent Carol as each element tells the story of the Christ child anew. The Annunciation is a simple setting mainly for a solo soprano with harp as the “golden youth” gives the news of the Christmas child to Mary. The Trees carries on the tradition of many carols, depicting Joseph requesting a gift from various trees: fruit from the apple tree, wood from the cherry tree, but “thorns for a crowning” and “wood for a cross” from the Blackthorn and Elder trees. Let it be cold contains pretty references to starlight and snowflakes, but also carries a warning to look after the natural world that we have been given, while A Miracle likens the situation of Mary and Joseph to modern homelessness. The playing of the recorders and the choice of a minor key lend striking colour to New Boy Born while The Gold of Straw, a hugely appealing number, sounds almost like a rustic dance as the uncomprehending robin in the stable sees only that he has no use for the Wise Men’s gifts and would rather use the straw for his nest. Mary’s Carol is a beautiful lullaby while Call it Nazareth is challengingly contemporary, likening the Holy Family’s journey home to Nazareth with modern war zones like Darfur, Bosnia and Baghdad. The final carol, We Believe, returns to the sound-world of the opening both suggestively – in its instrumentation – and actually – in reiterating the chorus of Mirabile Dictu. The Present Song, described as an encore, pays homage to The Twelve Days of Christmas with its seemingly endless list of presents under the tree and is very fun way to end the disc.
Duffy’s poetry repeatedly refuses to be sucked into tradition - Jesus gets his first mention in Carol 13 of the cycle! - but instead challenges the listener to see the Christmas story through new eyes, drawing parallels with many modern issues in an inventive, never tokenistic manner. Her poetry combined with Johnson Manning’s obvious musical gifts have made a hugely successful and atmospherically beautiful cycle of carols which deserves to gain the widest possible audience. Naxos has done us all a service by releasing it: it deserves to become a hit.
John Quinn also listened to this disc
My previous encounter with the music of Sasha Johnson Manning
came last year when I reviewed
a fine disc of music written for the St Louis Chamber Chorus,
with whom she held the post of composer-in-residence between
1998 and 2006. That disc included her impressive Requiem
(2006) for a cappella choir.
Now we find her writing in a rather different vein and milieu
in collaboration with the new Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy,
and it’s right that Miss Duffy’s name should appear in the review
heading alongside that of the composer because this is very
obviously a joint project. In fact, one of my disappointments
with this recording is that the texts are not supplied. Presumably
this is for copyright reasons but since the creators clearly
intended the words to be a vital element of the work it seems
to be a bit perverse not to provide them. The choir’s diction
isn’t bad but if, like me, you assimilate and appreciate words
that are new to you better when they’re in printed form then
you may find the absence of the texts a frustration, especially
since I can’t see that they’re available on the internet.
Miss Johnson Manning writes in the booklet that the intention
was to “re-tell the Christmas Story for the 21st
century.” In so doing, however, it appears that in choosing
her language and imagery Miss Duffy has been deliberately careful
to appeal to people beyond those of a Christian persuasion.
Thus, it appears from an article
I found in the Times Online, that the name of Jesus is not specifically
mentioned until the thirteenth carol, ‘Each Child’s Name’ –
and, interestingly, that’s one of three carols that were omitted
when the sequence was revised prior to publication. Again, in
‘Annunciation’, the angelic messenger is referred to not as
an angel but as a “golden youth”. Thus, with the Christian aspect
of the Nativity story present but not too explicitly, do its
creators offer a sequence of carols, as the composer writes,
“for everybody, the believer and the non-believer, people of
other faiths, the curious and anyone wishing to join in the
The Manchester Carols are devised as a sequence and,
indeed, the published version includes a linking narrative,
though that’s not performed here. The first and last pieces,
which are much more secular in tone, stand outside the sequence.
‘The Carol Singers’ Carol’ is designed, we’re told, as “a scene-setter,
an audience-warmer.” To be quite honest, it’s a bit kitschy,
I think, rather like some of those determinedly “festive” American
Christmas songs. It doesn’t quite work for me and I note that
it too has been omitted from the published version – the other
one of the three omissions is ‘Let it be cold’. To be honest
I could also do without the concluding number, ‘The Present
Song.’ Not only is it even more overtly secular than ‘The Carol
Singers’ Carol’ but also I can’t quite see the musical point
of it. The penultimate carol, ‘We Believe’, would be a much
more logical conclusion, not least because it revisits musical
material from ‘Mirabile Dictu’, the carol which is the start
of the sequence proper.
In between these two secular bookends there’s much to enjoy.
Above all, Miss Johnson Manning has an enviable melodic facility
and the one thing that The Manchester Carols does not
lack is memorable, singable tunes. A good number of the pieces
are bright and fresh, including ‘Mirabile Dictu’, which sticks
readily in the mind, the engaging ‘The Trees’ and the bright
and breezy ‘An Angel’.
Elsewhere, a more reflective note is struck. The first slow
number that we encounter is the fifth carol, ‘Annunciation’,
and it’s worth the wait. This is a touching, intimate piece,
which features a lovely melody. Much of the setting is for solo
soprano – the composer herself on this occasion, and very good
she is too – accompanied by harp. ‘A Miracle’ is another slow
piece and it’s quite serious in tone. A male soloist carries
much of the musical argument – according to the booklet the
soloist is a tenor but it’s a pretty low-lying part, more suited
to a baritone I’d have thought. This carol is a prayerful piece
with more than a touch of melancholy. Another reflective piece,
and one which I can see being a ‘hit’ is ‘Mary’s Carol’. This
is for voices and piano, though in the main the singers are
unaccompanied. It’s described by its composer as “loving and
intimate”. I’d agree with that and add that it’s a very sincere
little setting and rather lovely.
As I’ve already said, a very strong melodic vein runs throughout
these carols. The harmonies aren’t especially challenging but
I don’t say that in a critical sense; the aim of these compositions
is, surely, for people to enjoy them at first hearing – and
also to take part; I’m sure these pieces will be well
within the compass of most decent amateur choirs. If I have
a criticism of the music itself it’s that the settings are rather
weighted towards the treble line – I’m not surprised to learn
that a high-voice version of The Manchester Carols is
to be published in time for Christmas 2010. Perhaps the impression
of treble bias is emphasised by the fact that on this recording
the choir consists of three each of altos, tenors and basses
but there are six sopranos, of which the composer is one.
The singing is alert, fresh and enthusiastic. Incidentally,
the Manchester Carollers may be more familiar to some as the
group who can be heard most weekday mornings on BBC Radio Four
as the Daily Service Singers. The small chamber orchestra offers
bright playing under the direction of Richard Tanner, the Director
of Music at Blackburn Cathedral.
The recording was made before the first public performance,
which took place in December 2007. Since then the score has
been “extensively revised”, we’re told, the revision including
the excision of three numbers, so this will probably be your
only chance to hear the original version.
These are fresh, lively and enjoyable Christmas compositions
and worth hearing as a contemporary alternative to our usual
seasonal musical fare - but an addition to it as well.