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I Sing the Birth
Andrew SMITH (b. 1970) Veni Redemptor gentium [2:36]
Plainchant Hodie Christus natus est [[0:53]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c 1525-1594) Hodie Christus natus est [1:39]
Puer natus est nobis. Introit for the Feast of the Nativity [2:47]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child* [2:58]
PÉROTIN (c.1160-1240) Beata viscera [1:54]
William CORNYSH (c.1465-1523) Ave Maria Mater Dei [2:36]
Plainchant Alma Redemptoris Mater [1:39]
Irish trad. Arr. Alexander CRAIG The darkest midnight in December [2:05]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934) The Fader of Heven [1:21]
Introit: Vox in Rama [0:53]
Clemens non PAPA (c.1510Ėc.1556) Vox in Rama [3:08]
Introit reprise: Vox in Rama [0:59]
Normandy trad. Arr. New York Polyphony Away in a manger [2:26]
Robert PARSONS (c.1530-?1570) Ave Maria* [3:35]
Coventry Carol Lully, lulla, thow littel tyne child [2:28]
Plainchant Ave Maria [1:00]
Fifteenth-century English carol Lullay, lullow, I saw a swete semly syght [2:10]
Fifteenth-century English carol Mervele noght, Josep [5:44]
Richard SMERT (fl. 1428-1477) Nowell: Dies wous garde, byewsser [2:52]
Plainchant Veni Redemptor gentium [0:51]
William BYRD (c.1540-1623) O magnum mysterium [4:54]
Plainchant Ecce advenit dominator Dominus [2:07]
Clemens non PAPA Magi veniunt ab oriente [3:18]
Andrew SMITH Nunc dimittis* [2:35]
Plainchant Vox in Rama [0:56]
New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Dunstan Williams (counter-tenor); Geoffrey Silver (tenor); Scott Dispensa (baritone); Craig Phillips (bass-baritone))
*with Elizabeth Baber (soprano)/Ruth Cunningham (soprano)/Emilie Williams (alto)
rec. St. Georgeís Church, Stuyvesant Square, New York, November 2006, April/May 2007. DDD
Texts and translations included
AVIE AV2141 [60:55]

New York Polyphony, a male voice quartet, was founded in 2006. Here, augmented in a few items by three female singers, they present an unusual but extremely thoughtfully constructed programme of Christmas music Some of the items were recorded for a Christmas broadcast on Public Radio International in 2006 and earlier this year further tracks were recorded to complete the album. I suspect, though itís not stated explicitly, that the ensembleís musical adviser, Malcolm Bruno, played a key role in devising the programme. He contributes a stylish and interesting liner note.

The four members of New York Polyphony are evidently extremely skilled singers. The blend, tuning and ensemble work are flawless and theyíve been recorded with clarity in a sympathetic acoustic, which has just the right amount of resonance. Where female voices are essential additions the ladies concerned match and complement the men admirably.

The programme explores Christmas music of a certain type down the ages. As Malcolm Bruno says, "The landscape traversed on this disc is broad, from twelfth-century conductus to a twenty-first century carol, though the music centre is firmly polyphonic and rooted in the late medieval world." In addition the selection of music takes us on a narrative journey encompassing several incidents surrounding the birth of Christ. The shepherds may not figure here but the Magi do, at the end, and itís noticeable how much emphasis, explicit and implicit, is placed on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the dark side of the Christmas story.

As will be noted from the track-listing above, the programme, which is divided into four sections, is interspersed with pieces of plainchant. These are shrewdly chosen and positioned within the running order. Chant pervades one or two other pieces too, including Andrew Smithís Veni Redemptor gentium, specially commissioned for this recording. Itís a lovely offering that demonstrates, in Brunoís words, the "synergy of chant and polyphony" as does Palestrinaís Hodie Christus natus est, which follows close on its heels.

The setting by William Cornysh is a fine, rugged piece and it was an excellent decision to preface it with the piece by Pérotin, sung here most evocatively, just by a solo counter-tenor.

Later in the programme the setting of Vox Rama by Clemens non Papa, is intense and fittingly doleful. Intelligently, it is preceded and followed by the same text sung to plainsong. The two modern British pieces, by Leighton and Maxwell Davies, sit easily in this company, as does the excellent arrangement of the Irish traditional song, The darkest midnight in December. The tune is genuinely haunting and the arrangement is very successful in its treatment of the melody, which always makes its presence felt. Rather more familiar fare is provided in the shape of Away in a manger. This is sung to a quite lovely, less familiar tune from Normandy, in an excellent arrangement by the singers themselves.

I must admit that I enjoyed the third section of the programme rather less than the rest. To be frank, medieval vocal music, with its often spare and austere textures and strange harmonies doesnít do a great deal for me and four such items in quick succession is rather a large dose for my taste. Other listeners may well take a different view and, so far as I can judge, the performances are expert. Incidentally, Iím a little bit puzzled by the attribution of Mervele noght, Josep and Nowell: Dies wous garde, byewsser. Iíve preserved, in the heading to this review, the attribution in the booklet listing but Malcolm Bruno attributes Mervele noght, Josep to Richard Smert and I havenít been able to check which way round is correct.

There are a couple of items that I think are a little less successful as performed here. A few of the pieces have been transposed downwards to suit the voices that make up New York Polyphony. One such is Byrdís magnificent O magnum mysterium and Iím not entirely sure that the treatment works that well. As Malcolm Bruno says, the lower key imparts a "dark and rich" hue to the music but I wonder if it isnít just a bit too dark. However, New York Polyphony make a good case for the piece to be done this way. Where I do part company with them is in their treatment of Robert Parsonís sublime Ave Maria. This short piece is, I believe, one of the glories of Tudor polyphony. Unfortunately this performance is just too brisk. I checked two or three other recordings in my collection and I couldnít find one that doesnít take about a minute longer, or more. I feel that at the flowing speed adopted here the music is robbed of the amplitude and the sense of space that it should have. Parsonís glorious lines just donít float timelessly in the way that they should.

However, thatís just a single disappointment in an otherwise superbly executed and very thoughtfully constructed recital. Many years ago I read a review by the late Gordon Reynolds of a Tallis Scholars recording which, if I recall correctly, ended with the phrase, "a lovely record, beside which so much of our traditional Christmas musical fare seems meretricious." Having heard this stimulating and very satisfying new disc by New York Polyphony I know what he was getting at. Inevitably this disc is slightly esoteric in its appeal but it puts a different and suitably reflective angle on Christmas music. Iíd urge you to make it part of your seasonal listening.

John Quinn


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