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All is Bright
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621) Hodie Christus natus est [2:24]
Anon c. 1420 There is no rose [3:35]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c. 1637-1707) In dulci Jubilo [5:20]
14th Century German harm. Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) Lo, how a Rose e:er blooming [2:20]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) The Three Kings [2:51]
William WALTON (1902-1983) What cheer? [1:12]; King Herod and the cock [2:10]; Make we joy now in this fest [4:21]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:21]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970) Lux Aurumque [3:54]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) A babe is born, Op. 55 [3:12]; Sir Christèmas [1:22]
Franz GRÜBER (1787-1863) Stille Nacht [3:14]
Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962) O magnum mysterium [7:38]
Charles IVES (1874-1954) A Christmas Carol [1:55]
Daniel PINKHAM (b. 1923) Sweet Music [4:36]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923) While all things were in quiet silence [2:32]
Anon. English, arr. Steven Pilkington The Coventry Carol [4:07]
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989) O My Deir Hert [2:27]
Welsh trad. Deck The Hall [1:14]
Tom VIGNIERI (b. 1961) Hodie Christus natus est [4:32]
Christòpheren Nomura (baritone); John Finney (organ)
Trinity Handbell Ensemble
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus
Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra/Grant Llewellyn
Recorded 11-13 April 2005 at Methuen Memorial Hall, Methuen, Mass., USA. DDD
AVIE AV 2078 [72:07]
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This, I have to say, is just my kind of Christmas record. It combines familiar fare with very worthwhile novelties performed by a moderate-sized and expert choir.

The Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society, founded as long ago as 1815, is one of Americaís most venerable musical organisations, with a proud and enviable history. Among the pieces that it introduced to the USA are Messiah (1818), Creation (1819), Verdiís Requiem, and Bachís B Minor Mass (1887) and St. Matthew Passion (1889). Here it performs under its current Music Director, the Welsh conductor, Grant Llewellyn, who has been in post since the 2001-2 season.

The word "venerable" may apply to the Handel and Haydn Society as an institution but itís the last word Iíd use to describe the choir on the evidence of this recording. I donít know if the forces employed here represent the full strength of the choir but there are 10 sopranos, 7 female altos, 7 tenors and 8 basses listed, all professional singers. They sound superb. Ensemble and attack are crisp and precise throughout the programme and it seemed to me that blend and tuning were flawless. In addition, the singers make a most pleasing sound. The singing is consistently fresh, light and full of life and the rhythms are articulated very well indeed, which is crucial in some of the items chosen by Mr. Llewellyn.

The music has been shrewdly chosen to show off the choirís skills and to offer a pleasing, satisfying and well-balanced programme. Many of the items are from the Old World, including a couple that evidence Grant Llewellynís Welsh roots, but thereís a good sprinkling of items from New World composers too.

The programme opens with Sweelinckís Hodie Christus natus est, the singing of which is delightfully buoyant. The piece makes a really joyful start to the proceedings and I relished the clear singing, which means that each part tells, as it should. In Buxtehudeís extrovert version of In dulci Jubilo the singers are joined by a small ensemble, consisting of organ, cello and two violins. The instrumentalists match the lightness and brightness of the singers most appealingly.

Praetoriusís Lo, how a Rose eíer blooming is, of course, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. Itís beautifully sung but here, for once, I had a reservation about Grant Llewellynís conducting. It seemed to me that at his chosen tempo the piece sounded a trifle sleepy. A smooth, moderately paced approach is, of course, entirely valid but I felt the music needed more inner life than is apparent in this rather suave rendition. I was also a trifle surprised to find the piece sung in English rather than the original German.

The involvement of baritone Christòpheren Nomura in Corneliusís The Three Kings is luxury casting indeed. Heís a noble soloist, producing a splendidly round sound. This is as fine a performance of the piece as Iíve heard. With Nomura on hand I suppose the inclusion of Howellsí lovely if slightly too ubiquitous A Spotless Rose was logical. He makes a mellifluous contribution to an excellently prepared account of this carol. I thought the choral backing to his solo verse was quite exceptionally balanced and sung.

English music gets quite a good look-in on this CD. In addition to the Howells piece no less than three carols by Walton are included and they make a satisfying group within the main programme. Each is very well done. The choirís clarity and rhythmic vitality serve Waltonís pieces very well, perhaps most of all in their performance of What cheer?

Most of the pieces discussed so far are relatively familiar. I was delighted, however, to see that several pieces that were new to me had been included. However, if I have one criticism of this CD it lies in the documentation. The sung texts, and, where appropriate, English translations are provided and there is information about the performers. However, thereís not a word about the music itself. That may be fair enough in respect of Stille Nacht, for example. However, Iíd have liked to know a bit about the unfamiliar music. For instance, I donít know if the piece by Ned Rorem is a recent one or comes from earlier in his career; as I suspect it may do. I happen to think such things matter. Again, the notes tell us nothing at all about Eric Whitacre. I was sufficiently impressed with his Lux Aurumque to want to know a bit more about him. Fortunately Google came to the rescue and I discovered that he is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music where his teachers included John Corigliano and the late David Diamond.

As I say, Lux Aurumque made an impression on me. Itís a quite lovely piece, scored for a capella choir, within which a solo soprano weaves a beautiful line Ė the soloist here has a lovely pure voice. The choral textures and wonderfully luminous and Whitacre spices up the setting with judicious use of gentle dissonance.

Iíve already come across and been impressed by the orchestral music of Jennifer Higdon and what I imagine is a fairly recent setting of O magnum mysterium is also impressive. The text that she sets is very familiar but the treatment here is novel. Higdon chooses to accompany the choir most imaginatively with a pair of flutes and she also employs a percussionist who, at various times, plays either chimes or glasses. This novel combination imparts to the opening in particular a sound that is powerfully suggestive of an aura of golden light. Itís quite magical. After the text has been sung in Latin, the words are sung, to different music, in English and this section moves from the quiet awe of the opening to illustrate the powerful wonder of the Incarnation. A couple of descriptive sentences canít adequately convey the nature of this memorable and beautiful contemporary setting. Hear it for yourself.

If you donít know Charles Ivesís little gem of a setting, thatís another reason for acquiring this disc though I have to say I wish Grant Llewellyn had adopted a slightly more relaxed speed for this piece Ė I much prefer the more easeful speed of Paul Hillier conducting the Theatre of Voices (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907079). The piece by New England composer Daniel Pinkham is interesting, not least in its resourceful use of a pair of solo sopranos. The Ned Rorem item is a typically sensitive setting. I loved the gentle radiance of this short piece. Virgil Thomson is represented by a lyrical, innocent piece and I also enjoyed the effective arrangement of the Coventry Carol in which handbells decorate and colour the refrain very atmospherically.

The disc ends as it began with a setting of Hodie Christus natus est, this time by Tom Vignieri, who is American, I believe. This piece was commissioned by Grant Llewellyn for the choir and here receives its first recording. Thereís an important part for solo baritone, which suggests to me that it may have been commissioned specifically with this CD and the participation of Nomura in mind. He sings splendidly once again and the most effective organ part is played extremely well by John Finney. Vignieri has produced an exciting, exuberant and joyful piece, which is built round a fine melodic idea. It makes a splendid conclusion to this programme and I hope the exposure of this recording will lead to other choirs taking it up.

Leaving aside one or two very minor and subjective reservations about tempo this is a most impressive and highly enjoyable disc. The standard of performance is excellent throughout and the musical programme is enterprising, interesting and well balanced. The recorded sound is excellent. This is as fine a Christmas disc as Iíve heard in a long time. If youíre looking for a seasonal gift for a musical friend this year then this could be the perfect solution. But one word of warning. Donít sample it first or you may be tempted to keep it instead as a treat for yourself.

Iím certain that this excellent CD will be in my player this Christmas Eve!

John Quinn



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