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Bethlehem Down - Carols by Holst, Warlock, Rutter and others
Trad. arr. RUTTER Deck the Hall
French, arr. CARTER A maiden most gentle
WARLOCK Balulalow
Andrew CARTER Sweet was the song the Virgin sang
English, arr. RUTTER Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
BRITTEN Corpus Christi Carol
HOLST Four Old English Carols
WARLOCK Bethlehem Down
English, arr. ROSSITER Sussex Carol
HOLST Lullay my liking
BRITTEN King Herod and the Cock
HADLEY I sing of a maiden
West Indian, arr. SLESSOR De Virgin Mary had a baby boy
WARLOCK The First Mercy
English, arr. RUTTER The Holly and the Ivy
HEAD Star Candles
Basque, arr. ROSSITER The Angel Gabriel
CARTER Mistletoe Carol
Philip Langridge, tenor
Finchley Children’s Music Group/Grace Rossiter
John Evanson (accompanist)
Rec. chapel of St. George’s VA School, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, UK, April 2004.
Proceeds from the recording to the charity HOPE for Children
NAXOS 8.557581 [56.17]

HOPE for Children is a relatively new charity, founded only in 1994, "to assist Handicapped, Orphaned, Poor and Exploited children in developing countries and the United Kingdom". In the introductory paragraph printed in the CD booklet special emphasis is laid on helping street children in developing countries, "to provide a lifeline for children, away from a life of begging and abuse" but concentrating on that would, I think, give a limited impression of the range of the charity’s activities. Those interested in knowing more should go to

The Finchley Children’s Music Group has given the royalties for this delightful CD of Christmas related music to HOPE for Children. The Group was founded in 1958, as the booklet again reminds us, "to give the first amateur performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde". A distinguished record of achievement has followed, with a fair emphasis on contemporary music. The current Musical Director is Grace Rossiter, who was herself a member of the Group. John Evanson is the sensitive accompanist in many of the pieces on the disc.

Despite the inclusion of a couple of carols from overseas the programme has a strong English feel to it, and the disc will bring a lot of pleasure to musical households this Christmas and in years to come. The link with the nativity story is sometimes only tenuous, as in The Birds, the beautiful song by the sixteen year-old Britten which ends in a different key from that in which it begins.

The standard of music making is outstanding. Tuning is immaculate, attack is unanimous and convincing, the words are clear and the overall sound of the group is sweet and homogeneous. Given this technical excellence, then, I was surprised to find that for my personal taste some of the singing seems cautious and lacking in abandon. I wouldn’t want to make too much of this, but in short, I sometimes wished the children would let their hair down a little more. I felt this even in one or two of the slower pieces, such as The Birds and Warlock’s Balulalow, where the tempi adopted make it difficult to achieve in any case. Conversely, in Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol (adapted from A Boy was Born) Grace Rossiter adopts a flowing tempo which poses its own problems in respect of the inner quality and aching sadness inherent in the words and music of this most touching piece. The choir shows what they are capable of in Rutter’s rather bland arrangement of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, however; there is a real smile in the singing here, real joy, real pleasure of communication. They show their mettle in Britten’s King Herod and the Cock too, the story told with irresistible verve.

This disc offers a welcome opportunity to hear Holst’s Four Old English Carols. These are early pieces, composed some ten years before his huge popular success, The Planets, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the composer’s very particular voice is not immediately recognisable. They are simple, diatonic settings, satisfying to sing, and the third, Jesu, thou the Virgin-born rather more than that, each of the four verses taken by a different soloist – affectingly, it seems, rising progressively in age – and the refrain sung by the chorus. There are signs in this piece of that curious mix of the ascetic and the luxurious which is the mature Holst, and which we also hear in Lullay my liking, given on this disc in an arrangement for high voices by the composer’s daughter.

Bethlehem Down is perhaps a strange choice of piece to use as the overall title of the disc. Warlock reacted to the nativity story as told in the poem by Bruce Blunt with a music strange and unexpectedly sombre. The children enter into the spirit of the piece exceptionally well. The more conventional The First Mercy is just as successful.

Grace Rossiter’s properly joyful arrangement of the Sussex Carol – one of my personal favourites – features Philip Langridge in a guest appearance, recorded very close compared to the choir. Likewise her lovely arrangement of the Basque carol The Angel Gabriel, expressive and very singable, with a particularly imaginative use of solo voices at the outset.

Patrick Hadley’s setting of I sing of a maiden is a real gem. Its gentle dissonances are most expertly despatched by the choir, but I did feel that the singing lacked a bit of character here. De Virgin Mary had a baby boy didn’t totally convince me either, rather correct and lacking in spontaneity (and others may be less troubled by spoof accents than I am). The Holly and the Ivy also lacked the unbuttoned quality I like from children’s singing, but it is beautifully sung from a technical point of view and allows me to draw attention to the uniformly excellent solo singing from young musicians too numerous to mention but all of whom are named on the booklet.

Michael Head’s ripely diatonic Star Candles will give much pleasure, especially sung as beautifully as this, and is in sharp contrast to final item in the programme, Andrew Carter’s Mistletoe Carol. The words, written by the composer, convey a slightly cynical view of Christmas and all that goes with it, and the music goes along with this in skilful fashion. The musical vocabulary, though hardly revolutionary, will raise a few eyebrows in this context, and the final, rather surprising chord is an effective close to a disc which will bring pleasure to all who hear it as well as supporting a thoroughly worthy cause.

William Hedley

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