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Bethlehem Down
1. Welsh Traditional arr. John RUTTER Deck the hall [2.02]
2. Benjamin BRITTEN The Birds [2.05]
3. French melody arr. Andrew CARTER A maiden most gentle [2.37]
4. Peter WARLOCK Balulalow [2.13]
5. Andrew CARTER Sweet was the song the Virgin sang [3.45]
6. English Traditional arr. John RUTTER Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [3.39]
7. Benjamin BRITTEN Corpus Christi Carol [2.26]
8. Gustav HOLST A Babe is born [2.20]
9. Gustav HOLST Now let us sing [2.33]
10. Gustav HOLST Jesu thou art the Virgin-born [2.30]
11. Gustav HOLST Salvator mundi natus est [1.47]
12. Peter WARLOCK Bethlehem Down (1930 Revision of 1927 choral version) [4.40]
13. English Traditional arr. Grace ROSSITER Sussex Carol [2.04]
14. Gustav HOLST Lullay my liking [3.42]
15. Benjamin BRITTEN King Herod and the Cock [1.30]
16. Patrick HADLEY I sing of a Maiden [2.23]
17. West Indian Carol arr. T. SLESSOR De Virgin Mary had a baby boy [2.24]
18. Peter WARLOCK The First Mercy [2.07]
19. English Traditional arr. John RUTTER The Holly and the Ivy [2.21]
20. Michael HEAD Star Candles [2.27]
21. Basque Carol arr. Grace ROSSITER The Angel Gabriel [2.29]
22. Andrew CARTER Mistletoe Carol [2.11]
John Evanson (piano)
Philip Langridge (tenor)
Finchley Children’s Music Group/Grace Rossiter
Soloists: 3. Callum Finn; 8. Sam Davis, Ashley Cooper, Tim Lehner, Rachel Caccia; 9. Olivia Clarke, Rionach McDaid-Wren; 10. Tim Lehner, Rose Rands, Lucy Sheffield, Rachel Dinham; 14. Francesca Jarero, Christina Scott, Miranda Fischer-Levine, Charlotte Faux ; Quartet: Rionach McDaid-Wren, Miranda Fischer-Levine, Charlotte Faux, Jessica Hill; 19. Olivia Clarke, Jessica Hill, Milly Kenny-Rider; 21. Charlotte Faux, Jessica Hill, Miranda Fischer-Levine, Christina Scott.
rec. 7-8 April 2004, 1891 chapel of St George’s VA School, Harpenden, Hertfordshire.
NAXOS 8.557581 [56.17]


I guarantee that any thoughts of this being just another Christmas CD by yet another children’s choir will be dispelled immediately upon hearing John Rutter’s imaginative arrangement of the opening carol, Deck the hall. The Finchley Children’s Music Group are clearly a highly accomplished group of young people indeed, trained with care, attention to detail and striking musicality by their musical director Grace Rossiter, herself once a member of the group.

This disc proves a fine vehicle for their talent, spanning as it does, a wide range of carols both old and new and coupling the original with the familiar in typically skilful arrangements by the likes of choral specialists John Rutter and Andrew Carter.

Andrew Carter, well known in the choral world and the provider of a legion of arrangements and originals, is well represented by his own carols Sweet was the song the Virgin sang and Mistletoe Carol. The traditional words of Sweet was the song are woven into a gentle carol, beautifully sung with organ accompaniment whilst the latter sets the composer’s own amusing words in a lively curtain closer that amongst other things warns, with tongue in cheek, of the perils of out of tune carol singers. Gustav Holst, another keen supporter of amateur music making in his day, wrote a good quantity of choral music and of the five carols recorded here, four are grouped together to form a useful and contrasting demonstration of the Finchley Children’s Music Group’s talents. Solo voices predominate in A babe is born, the sequence ending with a full throated and joyous Salvator mundi natus est. Philip Langridge joins the choir with considerable effect for Grace Rossiter’s arrangement of the Sussex Carol, although it is a pity that he only figures on the one occasion. Grace Rossiter also provides an attractive arrangement of the haunting, Basque carol, The Angel Gabriel whilst I also particularly enjoyed Michael Head’s charming Star Candles. Benjamin Britten’s fleetingly lively King Herod and the Cock is another delight amongst many.

Naxos pledges that the proceeds from the sale of the disc will go to HOPE, a children’s charitable foundation founded in 1994 with the goal of assisting Handicapped, Orphaned, Poor and Exploited children in Britain and the developing countries. Couple this with music and singing that is bound to warm even the coldest of Yuletide hearts and the result is a delightful stocking filler of a disc. At the usual Naxos fiver to boot, even Scrooge can afford to put his hand in his pocket.

Christopher Thomas

Em Marshall has also listened to this disc

Naxos’s Bethlehem Down is one of the more impressive Christmas discs to emerge during 2004. It incorporates a wide range of mostly British carols from the very traditional and familiar to the more obscure. The programming is good - some brilliant choices of works including Britten’s moving and beautiful The Birds and Corpus Christi, Warlock’s haunting Balulalow, various gorgeous Holst pieces (so good to have the Four Old English Carols together!) and Hadley’s beguiling I sing of a Maiden. I find it slightly strange that amongst the almost exclusively British works is found the occasional foreign work, such as the Basque and West Indian carol. One can only presume that they were included on account of their arrangements by British musicians - yet I find that, lovely though they are as individual works, they don’t really work combined with the rest of the repertoire and tend to stick out like sore thumbs. I also slightly regret that neither John Gardner’s lively, nor Holst’s lilting, gentle version of Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day was used.

The disc opens with Rutter’s version of Deck the hall. This immediately sets a very high standard for the CD, with excellent singing – really good musicianship here from the Finchley Children’s Music Group. With the exception of one or two of the girls who are just very slightly uncertain, all the other soloists are superb, with good, strong, clear voices and outstanding enunciation (indeed all the words in all the songs, not just solos, are extremely audible). One Tim Lehner merits particular mention for what is undeniably the most adorable sound I’ve ever heard (one shudders to use the word "cute", but unfortunately there would be no more apt example of it!). As he opens Jesus thou virgin born, he enhances an already stunningly beautiful carol. Were one to comment on each carol individually, this would read as an almost complete list of eulogies. There were a couple of disappointments – Warlock’s The First Mercy is taken too fast, and the choir is not quite able to capture the tender, magical mood of the piece – rather, their approach is an insouciant, emotionless one, completely lacking a sense of awe or mystery; have they read the poem beforehand, do they know what is it about? This is strange, considering that they manage to summon the sombre atmosphere of Bethlehem Down perfectly. They are also unable to get into the swinging jazziness of De Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy – they sing this West Indian carol with European inhibitions, far too classically, with clear, posh, staid accents, lacking the free, loose and unrestrained spirit that the carol evokes. I was also a little dismayed at the choice of Carter’s rather demanding Mistletoe Carol as the concluding work rather than one of the many carols of exquisite beauty featured earlier.

Yet theses few quibbles are far outweighed by the exceptional quality and radiance of the singing in all the other numbers; just listen to Lullay My Liking, or to their brilliant version of the Sussex carol, with no less distinguished a guest singer than Philip Langridge on top form. This is one children’s recording that I can thoroughly recommend. This must surely be some of the most superlative children’s singing I’ve ever encountered! It is an excellent value budget recording and one can feel virtuous as one enjoys the carols over mulled wine and mince pies, knowing that the proceeds from sales are going to the HOPE charity. What more could one wish for from a Christmas disc?

Em Marshall


see also review by William Hedley


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