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The Naxos Book of Carols
Traditional

O come, o come, Emmanuel
Of the Father's heart begotten
Antony PITTS

O quickly come
Traditional

Verbum Patris umanatur, O, O
M. MADAN / T. OLIVERS

Lo! He comes
Antony PITTS

The holly and the ivy
Michael PRAETORIUS

Lo, there a Rose is blooming
Traditional

Alleluya - a new work
Jehan TABOUROT

Ding! dong! merrily on high
G. KIRBYE / Christopher TYE

While shepherds watched
Orlando GIBBONS

The Song of Angels
Felix MENDELSSOHN

Hark! the herald angels sing
Franz GRUBER

Silent Night
William James KIRKPATRICK

Away in a manger
Traditional

Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep
John PITTS

O little town of Bethlehem
Traditional

Jesu, the very thought is sweet
John Francis WADE

O come, all ye faithful
Traditional

Personent hodie
Johann Sebastian BACH / Michael PRAETORIUS / John STAINER

In dulci jubilo
Traditional

Good King Wenceslas
John H. HOPKINS

We three kings of Orient are
Traditional

I saw three ships come sailing in
Antony PITTS

Hail to the Lord's Anointed
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
Rec. Church of St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 28-29 July 2003
NAXOS 8.557330 [78.59]

Here’s an interesting idea! Naxos and Faber Music have invited Antony Pitts, the director of Tonus Peregrinus, to revisit the traditional carol repertoire and assemble a collection of new arrangements or, in a couple of cases, brand new settings. The music for all the items can be downloaded (via www.naxoscarols.com ) until January for £10 per carol, a price that includes permission to make a limited number of copies for choir members. I’m bound to say, however, that the CD probably arrived in the shops after most choirs had chosen their Christmas repertoire so Naxos and Faber are more likely to achieve maximum take-up if they offer the music for sale again in early autumn 2004, which I hope they will. If the music appeals then this is a most imaginative way of disseminating new Christmas music.

What of the music? Well, the first thing to say is that, without exception, the performances by the eight voices of Tonus Peregrinus are very fine. The voices blend beautifully, balance is excellent and diction and tuning are exemplary. The organ accompaniments, where required, are also well done. One snag perhaps is that a mere eight voices, however expert, sound a bit underpowered in big "set piece" items such as Lo! He comes. No such problems with the smaller scale pieces, however.

The carols are divided into four groups, The Hope; The Message; The Baby; and The King of Kings. The twenty-four items include some new settings by Mr. Pitts. Of these I much prefer O quickly come. This is an a capella piece in which he ingeniously uses the suppressed energy of jagged rhythms to convey a sense of anxious expectancy. He also provides a new tune for Hail to the Lord’s Anointed. I must say that the tune impressed me but it is far from straightforward and I can’t believe that congregations will find it at all easy to pick up – it is simply too difficult. This, I suspect, will mean that the setting will end up as a non-congregational anthem. If I went to a carol service and found this hymn on the programme I’d feel cheated if I couldn’t take part because such a complex tune had been chosen in preference to the majestic one with which we’re so familiar. In short, this seems to me to be a miscalculation. (Pity, too, the sopranos who have to soar to what sounds like a top D as part of the "big finish".)

However, amongst the other items there is a good deal to enjoy. Pitts’ arrangement of The holly and the ivy is especially ingenious for he combines the very familiar tune with another much less well-known (and very good) one, which, in fact, was transcribed from a tape held by the BBC. Pitts also provides a new tune for O little town of Bethlehem. It is suitably reflective and I fond it grew on me though once again I’m unsure that it will ever supplant the more familiar tunes for congregational / audience use.

I have to say, though, that to my ears the trouble with several of the arrangements is that they are overdone. Away in a manger, for example, sounds suffocated by clever harmonies and the central verse of Silent night is sung as a solo in which the traditional melody is elaborated, to no good effect, I fear. (The outer verses, sung to much more sympathetic harmonies, sound fine, though.) The final verse of Hark! The herald angels sing includes a descant, of course, but there’s a complex organ part as well and the overall effect is something of an aural mush as competing lines vie for our attention.

I’m not saying for one moment that one should just perform the same tired arrangements year after year but I think there can be a danger of burying carols, which are, after all, a fairly simple, direct form of communication, beneath too many layers of sophistication. I fear that in a praiseworthy attempt to refresh the repertoire and our musical palettes this collection sometimes goes a bit too far. I did wonder whether it would have been preferable if more than one arranger had been involved.

In summary, then, this collection contains a few potential "hits" and several "misses." I’m sorry if I appear to have been harsh on some of the arrangements but I think this release must be judged as much more than a simple CD of carols and in listening I’ve tried to ask "what would the choir I sing with, and our audience, think of this?" I think they would take to some of the items but would not be so keen on quite a few others.

However, as so often with a Naxos release, we can’t get away from the issue of price. Here is an expertly performed, generously filled CD recorded in good sound at a super budget price. Full English texts are provided. In addition, the musical downloads are offered at what seems to me to be a very reasonable price. So this is not just "another" CD of carols. It’s an inexpensive and enjoyable way for singers to explore new repertoire and for that all involved in the project deserve congratulations.

Though I do have reservations about some of the arrangements others may well not share them and the collection as a whole is stimulating and enjoyable. I recommend this CD, especially to all those who will be planning their 2004 carol concerts rather sooner than they might wish!

John Quinn

 

Rob Barnett has also listened to this disc

The Christmas season is well within sight and the record companies offer their wares to engage another host of shoppers. This Naxos disc stands out from the crowd.

Naxos offer something distinctive as concept and in detail. They offer 24 carols one for each day of Advent. They group the carols thematically under: The Hope; The Message; The Baby; The King of Kings. Each is recorded in a version arranged by the conductor and composer Antony Pitts. His choir Tonus Peregrinus comprise only eight singers. Naxos commissioned these arrangement especially for this recording and the scores are downloadable from www.naxoscarols.com in affiliation with Faber Music. The disc is at bargain price and is exceptional value at a playing time of 78.59.

A well judged blend of new and old is to be found here. Even the old is given freshness by Pitts’ touches and twists of harmony, texture and tempo.

The chaste O come O come is redolent of Dufay and Busnois (tr. 1). Rocking celebration is to be found in the Father’s Heart begotten. The spiritual-Tippett flavour resounds through O quickly come. Lo he comes panders, in rather treacly fashion, to the congealed heavy tradition and has a strange clash of dissonance at the end. Ding Dong Merrily On High is bright and airy … quite traditional really. Hark the herald angels is by contrast rather turgid although the orthodox organ and choral line provides a tellingly dissonant descant to the traditional tune. Silent Night has a suitably sleepy poise - all the trappings of tradition without complete subjugation to the style. Many of these tracks give the impression of tracking the evolution of carols fifty years from now. Away in a manger is subject to harmonic diffraction and strange juxtapositions. The Czech Baby Jesus arrives in a lovingly melismatic haze. O Little Town is presented with chiming organ and has the memorably quiet touch of the Mike Sammes Singers - nothing wrong with a caramel moment. Other tracks offer am agreeable ‘wrong note’ aural disorientation and strangeness - like a vision of carols from some alternative universe. Pitts defiantly refuses to be thrall to tradition but bends it to his will. Most of the time the ‘contest’ works out very well.

This collection will suit anyone wanting a variant spin on their seasonal musical fare. It is not pop. There are traditional moments such as in Lo He Comes but predominantly this is an anthology for those jaded by convention.

Rob Barnett

 



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