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76 Lushes Road
Essex IG10 3QB
NoŽl Nouvelet Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Frohlocket ihr VŲlker auf Erden [1:22] Michael HEAD (1900-1976) The Little Road to Bethlehem [3:08] Bob CHILCOTT (b.
1955) Shepherdís Carol [2:56] German 14th Century arr. John RUTTER (b. 1945) Quem pastores Laudavere [1:42] John RUTTER
Maryís Lullaby* [3:34] Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Coventry Carol [3:06] Jonathan RATHBONE (b. 1957) Corpus Christi Carol [4:25] Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Illuminare Jerusalem* [2:43] Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943) O magnum mysterium [6:02] †French trad. arr. Stephen
JACKSON (b. 1951) NoŽl Nouvelet*[4:15] Naji HAKIM (b. 1955) Ding dong! Merrily on high [2:14] Humphrey CLUCAS (b. 1941) Love came down at Christmas* [2:04] Paul EDWARDS (b.
1956) No small wonder* [2:38] Franz GRUBER arr. Jonathan
Silent Night [3:55] John GARDNER (b. 1917) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day*[1:51] Arr. Nigel SHORT (b.
1953) Away in a manger* [3:09] Arr. Malcolm SARGENT (1895-1967) Hawaiian Lullaby [2:14] Mel TORM… arr. Ward
SWINGLE (b. 1927) Christmas Song [3:20] English trad. arr. Andrew
CARTER (b. 1939) The Twelve Days of Christmas [5:17]
*Jeremy Filsell (organ)
rec. St. Judeís, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 10-12
texts and translations included GUILD GMCD7314 [60:06]
The Vasari Singers have
a substantial number of recordings to their credit so I was a
to learn that this is their first Christmas disc. Their conductor,
Jeremy Backhouse, directs them in a stimulating programme,
which combines some familiar carols, albeit some of them
in new guises, and an enticing number of newer Christmas
first thing to say about this recital is that not only is
the singing consistently superb but also the attention to
detail is tremendous. I wouldnít normally follow Christmas
carols in a score but several of the pieces, including those
by Judith Weir, Morten Lauridsen and Andrew Carter, are contained
in the enterprising collection of carols entitled NoŽl! (ed.
David Hill, Novello, 2000). Out of interest I followed the
music of those pieces as I listened. Although Jeremy Backhouse
introduces one or two interpretative ideas of his own, all
the detailed markings included by the composers are fully
respected. That may sound like a very obvious point but it
shows the care that has gone into this production. Backhouse
and his singers certainly havenít approached this assignment
as ďjust a disc of carolsĒ and it makes a world of difference.
The listener will be struck from the
very outset by the fresh, joyful singing
in the Mendelssohn item, which makes
an excellent curtain-raiser here. The
performance of Michael Headís lovely
Christmas song is distinguished by some
extremely pure singing on the part of
the Vasariís sopranos. Marginally I
prefer this little gem in its choral
dress rather than as a solo song.
further into the programme, I greatly enjoyed the performance
of Rutterís Maryís Lullaby. Some people turn their
noses up at Rutterís Christmas music but Iím not among them.
At its best itís melodious and communicative and MaryísLullaby is
one of his best. Itís sung quite beautifully here. But it
was a very shrewd piece of programme building to follow it
with the Kenneth Leighton piece, which reflects the more
serious side of the Incarnation and the events surrounding
it in music thatís astringent, though not excessively so.
Fiona McWilliams contributes a marvellous soprano solo in
Rathboneís Corpus Christi Carol also reflects the
darker side of the human condition Ė Iím not sure the text
is truly a Christmas one, but no matter. This is a fine setting
that seems to involve a semi-chorus placed remotely, as in
Brittenís Hymn tothe Virgin. The music flows
but is quite intense, as befits the subject matter. I was
also impressed with another, very different setting, Naji
Hakimís exuberant and harmonically extravagant version of Ding
dong! Merrily on high (2001). Most of the pieces on this
disc require an expert choir to bring them off, but none
more so than this Hakim piece.
familiar is Morten Lauridsenís rapt O magnum mysterium.
This luminous piece is well on the way to becoming a modern
Christmas classic. The music looks relatively simple on the
printed page, especially as itís quite slow moving, but donít
be deceived: it requires the utmost control from the choir.
Thereís a wonderful clarity of texture about this superb
Vasari performance but this is not attained at the price
of the sense of mystery, which this piece should always create.
The choir is just as successful in the spare, angular harmonies
and demanding rhythms of Judith Weirís Illuminare Jerusalem.
This is given a thrillingly alert and clear performance.
few of the settings require organ accompaniment and what
a luxury it is to have a virtuoso of the calibre of Jeremy
Filsell on hand. He comes into his own particularly in Stephen
Jacksonís inventive setting of NoŽl Nouvelet. In fact,
itís no disrespect to any choir undertaking this piece to
say that a great deal of the interest lies in the organ part.
The writing for organ is no mere pastiche but, appropriately,
sounds very French indeed. Filsell makes a telling contribution
to this rich, sophisticated arrangement. Heís also involved,
though a little less critically, in John Gardnerís Tomorrow
shall be mydancing day. The music is marked ďfresh
and livelyĒ and thatís exactly how itís done here. In fact,
I canít ever recall hearing it taken so briskly but, with
crisp articulation from the choir, the chosen tempo works
brilliantly. This truly exuberant performance makes other
accounts that Iíve heard sound cautious and my only regret
is that Jeremy Backhouse, like many other conductors, eschews
Gardnerís optional percussion parts.
standards are heard in new arrangements. Jonathan Rathboneís
version of Silent Night is correctly described by
Jeremy Backhouse as ďsumptuousĒ. It stays on just the right
side of the sweetness line and I enjoyed it very much. The
hushed last verse, in dense harmonies, is particularly effective
and is underpinned by some lovely, very low notes in the
bass part. Equally successful is Nigel Shortís take on Away
in a manger. As Backhouse says, it is ďlushĒ, but I think
it also captures the essential tenderness of this modest,
well-loved little carol.
conclude the proceedings weíre offered three sweetmeats.
Iím afraid Iíve never had a sufficiently sweet tooth to enable
me to enjoy Sir Malcolm Sargentís carol arrangements. For
me theyíre very much of their time and that time passed a
good few years ago. However, the Vasariís gorgeous rendition
of Hawaiian Lullaby almost persuaded me. I needed
no persuasion, however, to lap up Ward Swingleís arrangement
of Mel Tormťís enduring secular standard, Christmas Song.
Swingle is the choirís patron and Jeremy Backhouse writes
of this arrangement that Swingle ďreleased [it] from his
private archive for us alone.Ē Well, if by some chance Ward
Swingle should ever read this review can I urge him that
this warm, stylish and, in a nice sense, sentimental arrangement
is far too good to remain unpublished, especially when sung
as well as it is here.
last word is with Andrew Carter and his arrangement of The
Twelve Days ofChristmas. Written as long ago
as 1971, though revised two years later, this is, incredibly,
its first recording. As the days unfold nothing untoward
seems to be happening until we get to the sixth day of Christmas,
which is where the mischief begins. I wonít spoil the surprises
for those whoíve not heard the arrangement before. Suffice
to say, Carter throws umpteen musical jokes into the mix
and the whole thing is tremendous fun. Needing a very skilled
choir to bring it off, I suggest that it receives here possibly
the best performance it can ever have had.
is one of the finest and most enjoyable Christmas discs to
come my way in a very long time, combining some quite stretching
musical fare with some fun items. Offhand, I canít think
of a better disc of Christmas music for you to find under
your tree on December 25th.
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