This time last year I was singing the praises of the premiere recording of John Tavener’s Ex Maria Virgine
(Naxos 8.572168, Bargain of the Month - see review
). This Christmas it’s the turn of Karl Jenkins to offer a new seasonal work. Though I praised the Tavener,
I was still coming to terms with it, a process that I hope and expect to complete this Christmas. The new Karl Jenkins, as you might expect, is more immediately appealing, but I doubt that it will prove as enduring. Much as I like Jenkins’s music, I found his Requiem
(EMI 5579662) eminently forgettable. I was more impressed by the original Adiemus
recordings, several of which remain available on EMI and Virgin. Whatever I say here, however, I’m sure that Stella Natalis
will sell like hot cakes.
falls more into the John Rutter camp than the John Tavener camp. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that I marginally prefer Rutter’s Christmas arrangements to those by Jenkins; they are equally loveable at first sight and ultimately more memorable.
consists of twelve short pieces, mostly 3-4 minutes long, with a variety of texts but mostly to verse by Carol Barratt. One might have expected Karl Jenkins to check his librettist’s efforts a little more closely, too: what possessed Ms. Barratt (alias
Mrs Jenkins) to ascribe the burning of Shadrach, Meshach and Abenigo (sic - recte
‘Abednego’) to Daniel, I cannot guess. It’s what used to be called a schoolboy howler. It was, of course, King Nebuchadnezzar who ordered them to be cast into the fire, not Daniel, yet she writes “Daniel commanded bind their feet and cast them all three/into the burning fiery furnace” (track 3). She is quoted in the booklet as saying “I’m handy and I’m cheap”, but that is surely no excuse for lack of elementary RE knowledge. Or is there some subtlety here that I’m missing?
I’m afraid that much of the rest of her verse hardly qualifies as immortal poetry but, fortunately, Jenkins’s music compensates, for example for the banalities of Wintertide
(tr.5). The jaunty appeal of this track is immediately offset by the meditative beauty of the following Sleep, Child of Winter
(tr.6). The mood changes again for the jolly Make we merry
(tr.7) and, this time, the anonymous 16th
-century lyrics, though simplistic, don’t jar. I imagine that the sixteenth-century lyricist knew about Daniel, too.
Better still are the sections translated from the psalms; of these track 9, The Protector
, employing the text of Psalm 121, receives a particularly affective treatment. This is one of the tracks on which Kate Royal features and is all the better for that, though the overall effect is still rather soupily sweet, to purloin an expression which Rob Barnett aptly uses of some of Jenkins’s other music (see below).
Sing with joy at Christmas
(tr.11) is in a rather bewildering mix of styles, from Alice Halstead’s simple and very effective part to the rather intrusive ‘Christmas day in an African way’; better to have kept these disparate elements for two separate works, I think. The finale, a setting of Jubilate Deo
, Psalm 100 in the Prayer Book version (not the King James, as stated), also suffers from trying to blend two disparate elements, the words of the psalm constantly interrupted by a manic Amen
. I was left feeling somewhat shell-shocked by these two closing movements. The booklet omits a vital ‘his’ in ‘we are his people’.
I enjoyed the second work even more: Joy to the World
, is actually a suite of arrangements of Christmas carols of various provenance, commencing with a peal of bells and a lively arrangement of In dulci jubilo
that Michael Praetorius could only have dreamed of. In view of the snazzy way in which he arranged the dance tunes in Terpsichore
, he would probably have loved it. These arrangements are every bit as catchy as John Rutter’s, but there’s no mistaking them for his - Jenkins’s style is completely sui generis
, especially with the Adiemus singers among the interpreters.
(tr.15) comes in for the soapiest of soapy treatments. It would be foolish to expect an underplayed performance, of course, in this context and the resulting sound is oddly attractive, even the pop-style fade-out at the end. O Jesus so sweet
(tr.16, a decent if slightly flat-footed translation of Paul Gerhardt’s O Jesülein süß
) and The First Nowell
(tr.19) are left comparatively straight; like track 9, they benefit enormously from Kate Royal’s singing. I even forgave the humming accompaniment on track 16 in early November, so I’m sure to be more indulgent still, nearer to 25 December. I’m not too sure, though, about the obtrusive glottal stop that the singers introduce into the refrain Now’ell, now’ell
Track 18, Son of Maria
, employs a catchy arrangement of the Epiphany hymn Star of the East
, while the original West Indian tune of track 20, The Virgin Mary had a baby boy
needed only a twitch or two; the tune was already pretty catchy. We wish you a merry Christmas
(tr.21) rounds off Joy to the World
and the whole CD in a jolly and most effective manner. These final nine tracks made up for my partial disappointment with the first twelve.
I’ve already singled out Kate Royal’s contribution; such collaborations by classical singers in pop albums can be a disaster, but not, I think, on this occasion. Alison Balsom’s contribution on trumpet is also something special - try track 10, Dona nobis pacem
, and track 18, Son of Maria
, for an example from each half of the album. Chorister Alice Halstead’s contributions (trs.11 and 19) are also noteworthy, but all concerned give of their best. If the music alone were not enough to identify its composer, the presence of the Adiemus Singers clinches the matter.
There’s no really quiet music here and the volume is unvaryingly loud - in fact, you’ll need to turn down the volume by about 5 dB to obtain a satisfactory listening level. I’m sure that will appeal to the kind of audience at which this CD is aimed, but I found the level somewhat wearing and likely to do damage to the hearing of anyone listening on an mp3 player at normal volume.
I’m sure that this album will be extremely successful, as it deserves to be despite some of my comments. If this CD tempts you to try more Jenkins, the best place to start is probably the Essential Collection
, which Rob Barnett reviewed in 2006 (3 53244 2 - see review