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A Carol Symphony and other Christmas orchestral favourites
Bryan KELLY (b.1934) Improvisations on Christmas Carols (1969);
Victor HELY-HUTCHINSON (1901-1947) A Carol Symphony (1927);
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) arr. Lane Bethlehem Down (1927/2002);
Philip LANE (b.1950) Wassail Dances;
Patric STANDFORD (b.1939) A Christmas Carol Symphony (1978);
City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland
Recorded at Mecky Studio, Prague May 2002
NAXOS 8.557099 [68.23]


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I once told a friend that I hadn’t bought him the disc of Christmas music that he asked for because he could really only play it once a year to which he replied, "at least you can play it that often". I know what he means. Anyway this disc can be enjoyed throughout the winter and no one should be ashamed of Christmas music in late January, after all Cathedrals seem to keep their trees up until Candlemass (February 2nd)!

Two composers use these melodies in a symphonic way and although Bryan Kelly ‘Improvisations’ is not so structured, neither are they a pot-pourri. At twelve minutes his piece, which opens the disc, is an ideal length for an amateur orchestra at its Christmas Concert, although it was originally written for the BBC Concert Orchestra. It proves itself to be more of a suite by being in five movements each on a different tune; for instance the slow movement uses ‘Past three o’clock’.

The great joy for me was to find, that Patric Standford’s ‘A Christmas Carol Symphony’ has at last been recorded. Originally broadcast (without its Scherzo for some reason) in the early 1980s, I promptly got the score. Each of the four movements uses a range of tunes. The first, in sonata form, takes ‘Deck the Halls’ as a first subject and then plays with ‘Ding Dong Merrily’ as a second with a third subject ‘God rest ye merry Gentleman’. This, traditional, modal melody is popular on this disc. Kelly uses it as a canonic opening movement and Hely-Hutchinson as the only melody in the Scherzo of his symphony. Standford, a wondrous orchestrator has, incidentally, made a few alterations to the orchestration of his symphony compared with the score, which I don’t always find to be beneficial. For example the ‘We three Kings’ quote (letter L) is now on the flute instead of the more wistful solo violin. What a pity too that the meno mosso marking is less effective than one would like. Also when ‘I saw three ships’ makes its first appearance in the violins, (letter J) the recorded balance favours the brass too much, as it tends to in other places, and the melody is drowned. Or again has the orchestration altered? Despite these reservations this is a fine work.

Hely-Hutchinson’s Symphony, unlike Standford’s, has been recorded many times before, and here it gets a crisp and clear reading and recording. The opening movement uses a lively counter-melody in the strings above the brass, ‘Adeste Fidelis’ acting like a chorale. This is very nicely done with beautifully defined dynamics and subtle tempo alterations. It is amazing to think that the composer was only 26 when he composed and orchestrated this attractive work.

Philip Lane is something of a doyen of British light music. Interestingly he was only 23 when he completed his colourful but arguably a little too succinct ‘Wassail Dances’ for the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestra. The piece ends with a Gloucestershire melody and also has one each from Yorkshire and Somerset. These tunes are not so well known but the middle movement, from Yorkshire, uses the ‘Here we come a-wassailing’ melody which you will probably recognize. Lane is also responsible for the tasteful arrangement for strings of Peter Warlock’s beautiful and melancholy Carol-Anthem ‘Bethlehem Down’ which is nicely placed in the middle of the CD.

Those readers who have a particular penchant for this type of repertoire will already feel that they owe Gavin Sutherland a considerable debt of gratitude in his rediscovery of light music gems in the ASV British Light Music series. The City of Prague Philharmonic are not only highly competent but seem to revel in these pieces. I’m only sorry therefore that you won’t read this until the festive season 2002/3 is well and truly over. However I would recommend that you buy it anyway in preparation for next Advent and then have it on your car CD player. It will offer you considerable fun.

Useful notes and excellent, seemingly well-prepared performances.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Neil Horner

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