I wonder how many seasonal CDs get played more than once? Trouble is, many festive compilations show a desperate lack of imagination, cobbling together any previously released material that has the remotest connection to Christmas. There are exceptions, as I discovered with the McCreesh/Gabrieli Consort performance of the Mass for Christmas Morning
by Praetorius (review
). What a wonderful, uplifting work that is, and it even works its magic long after the tree has been taken down and the baubles have been stowed under the stairs.
For me, Christmas came early this year with the chance discovery - on YouTube - of the Finnish organist Kalevi Kiviniemi. I have since reviewed three of his recitals and was curious to hear how he fares as an accompanist. He is joined on this festive programme by the baritone Jorma Hynninen, cellist Marko Ylönen and recording engineer Mika Koivusalo, making this an all-Finnish affair. The latter’s technical wizardry has much to do with the sonic success of Kiviniemi’s organ discs, so his presence here is to be welcomed. As for the repertoire, it’s a mixture of pieces by various composers, including traditional hymns and three works for organ solo. The booklet and jewel case information is in Finnish only and no texts are provided.
That’s hardly a problem, though, as some of these tunes - In dulci jubilo
and Vom himmel hoch,
for instance - are widely known; as for the rest, the titles speak for themselves. The Christmas Prayer
, arranged by Kiviniemi, opens with a rich cello melody, the music’s warming cadences echoed by the organ and vocalist. It’s a simple strophic song, made all the more lovely by the full, reverberant acoustic of Helsinki’s Kallio Church. Hynninen - in his mid-sixties when this recording was made - is in good voice too, showing few signs of vocal wear and resisting any temptation to over-emote. Simplicity of utterance seems to be the keynote here, and I’m sure most listeners will respond well to that.
The Song of life
is given here in an arrangement by another Finnish composer, Oskar Merikanto. Despite the very close balance - one isn’t so much in the front pew as next to the musicians - this, too, is beautifully presented. The large-scale organ sound suits this music well, although some may find it a touch overpowering at times. The two In dulci jubilo
settings really do usher in the festive cheer, Hynninen in ringing voice in the first, Kiviniemi splendid in Dupré’s version for organ solo. The Super Audio layer of this disc certainly picks up every detail and nuance of this instrument, the deep bass as calming as a cup of mulled wine.
The performance of the next three hymns, traditional ones centred on the Christmas story, are as bold and upfront as before. Indeed, I can’t see this disc being played as an accompaniment to, say, preparations for the Christmas lunch. No, it really demands you add a log to the fire, refresh your drink, sit back and allow yourself to be pleasantly engulfed. The Rautavaara piece - which I first encountered in its original version for male voice choir - is more individual than most of the works here, Hynninen colouring and shading his voice very well indeed. There may be a hint of vocal unevenness at times, but the overall effect is pleasing all the same.
And no, this isn’t Franck’s supple G minor Andantino
- one of my favourites - but the lesser-known one in A flat major. No matter, Kiviniemi plays it with real flair, that haunting refrain beautifully captured. Again, the organ sound may seem a little too dominant, but there’s enough Franckian invention to keep one listening to the end. Back to Finland and Christmas is coming,
the first of two pieces by Taneli Kuusisto. Sung with a real sense of anticipation it’s heart-warming in the best sense of the word, tinged with more than a touch of gratitude for this magical day. By contrast Kiviniemi’s arrangement of Luther’s Vom himmel hoch
- From heaven above - peals forth like giant bells; it’s so stirring one almost wishes for the added frisson
of a lusty congregation rather than a lone voice. It’s a splendid tune nonetheless, and Kiviniemi really lets rip in the final verse.
The last four items may be on a smaller scale but the recording remains as deep and broad as before. The strophic nature of these hymns does mean there’s a degree of musical repetition, but Hynninen helps by varying his voice as much as possible. The gentle Pastorale
by Dubois is entirely appropriate in the company of shepherds, Kiviniemi finding much sparkle in the music’s upper reaches. It’s a good foil to all those rousing hymns as well. The jumbo-sized cello that ushers in the Maasalo piece would be somewhat over the top in any other context, but it works well enough here.
The Lutheran pastor, poet and composer Philipp Nicolai is best known for Wachet auf
- Sleepers, wake - and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
- How beautifully shines the morning star. The latter sums up the wonder of Christmas rather well. It’s played and sung with real gusto - Kiviniemi really does
pull out all the stops here - and all that’s missing is the sound of a congregation rising to its feet, grateful that the long service is near its end.
This collection doesn’t outstay its welcome, despite the somewhat unvarying nature of its content. Slotting in a few solo organ pieces makes good sense, but some choral contributions would have been very welcome too. The recording is not at all subtle, but Mika Koivusalo and his team certainly present us with a glorious, all-enveloping sound. So, a Christmas disc to savour and, when the day is done, top up your drink, turn down the lights and revel in it all over again.