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A Christmas Festival
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano); Clara Sanabras (soprano); Melanie Marshall (mezzo);
The Cambridge Singers; Farnham Youth Choir; John Birch (organ)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/John Rutter
rec. April 2008, Cadogan Hall, London. Organ rec. June 2008 in the Royal Albert Hall, London. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
Experience Classicsonline

J F WADE, orch and descant David WILLCOCKS O come, all ye faithful [4:00]
From Piae Cantones (1582) arr. Michael NEAUM orch. Rutter Gaudete [1:49]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) The Shepherdís Carol [2:44]
Welsh trad. arr Rutter Nos galan (New Yearís Eve) [1:57]
Appalachian Carol collected by J J NILES (1892-1980) arr. Rutter I wonder as I wander [3:48]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) Ave Maria [3:02]
English trad. arr. Rutter Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [2:50]
John RUTTER Rejoice and be merry [2:36]
Catalan trad. arr. Rutter El Noi de la Mare (The Son of the Virgin) [3:14]
Nigel HESS (b. 1953) A Christmas Overture [7:23]
John DAVID (b. 1946) Born on a New Day [2:43]
John RUTTER Magical Kingdom [3:28]
Jester HAIRSTON (1901-2000) arr. Rutter Maryís Boy Child [4:24]
Spanish trad. arr. Rutter Esta noche (This night) [2:02]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Sleigh Ride [5:44]
Caribbean trad. arr. Rutter The Virgin Mary had a baby boy [4:08]
John RUTTER New Year [4:17]
John RUTTER I wish you Christmas [4:26]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) orch and descant David WILLCOCKS Hark! The herald angels sing [4:05]
Hugh MARTIN (b. 1914) & Ralph BLANE (1914-1995) arr. Rutter Have yourself a merry little Christmas [3:01]

The name of John Rutter has become synonymous with Christmas music, especially in the UK and in the USA, over the last three decades or so. It comes as a slight surprise, therefore, to learn that this is the first Christmas recording that heís made with his Cambridge Singers for nearly twenty years. The programme is based round the annual Christmas Festival concerts that heís been conducting for the last few years in Londonís Royal Albert Hall.

I should preface my comments by saying that Iím a great admirer of John Rutter and not least of his melodic gifts and his ability, through his music, to communicate very directly with audiences and performers. Over the years Iíve enjoyed very much singing a lot of his music Ė Iím just in the midst of a series of performances of his wonderful Requiem Ė and I have several CDs of his Christmas music in my collection. Rutter has produced a number of fine Christmas CDs in the past, most notably Christmas Night (COLCD 106), so I approached this new release with keen expectation.

In part the expectations were fulfilled but I do have a problem with this CD in that a number of Rutterís arrangements strike me as over-elaborate and just a bit too clever. To be sure, everything is skilfully done Ė one would expect no less Ė but there were several cases when I felt the arrangements drew attention to themselves too much at the expense of the music theyíre designed to enhance. I wonder if part of the trouble may lie in the fact that at least some of the arrangements were designed for performance in the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall and in the presence of a substantial audience? Rutterís fanfares that usher in O come, all ye faithful and Hark! The herald angels sing are rather grandiose. When, in each case, a relatively small choir then takes up the hymn on this CD it seems something of an anti-climax but Iím sure both make an exciting effect at Rutterís Christmas Festivals, inspiring an audience of thousands to join in lustily. Incidentally, Iím delighted to find that Rutter has stayed loyal to the descants of his old mentor, Sir David Willcocks. Descants come and go but these by Sir David take an awful lot of beating.

I may as well get the rest of the "Bah! Humbug!" portion of the review out of the way at once. I really donít care for Rutterís arrangement of Nos galan Ė the melody is our old friend Deck the Halls Ė itís fussy almost from the start and becomes more so as the piece wears on. Another arrangement thatís too pretty is Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. Rutter has smoothed out the original compound time rhythm somewhat and, in so doing, he robs the tune of some of its energy. One other piece I didnít like is the arrangement of Gaudete. The arrangement, for high voices only, is not by Rutter but the orchestration is and his use of faux-medieval harp, muted brass and drums actually detracts from the essential earthiness of the carol.

But letís banish Mr Scrooge and mention some of the things that do work. I wonder as I wander is set for solo voice and itís a gift for Melanie Marshall, who sings it beautifully. The nut-brown sound of the obbligato viola emphasises the haunting quality of this arrangement. Miss Marshall, as singer Ė and Rutter, as arranger Ė are equally successful in The Virgin Mary had a baby boy. This put me very much in mind of Rutterís hugely enjoyable Spiritual suite, Feel the Spirit. Itís an engaging arrangement and Rutter adds just enough of bongos and other Caribbean-sounding percussion to add spice without over-egging the pudding.

I also enjoyed the contributions of Clara Sanabras, who I believe is Spanish. She has two contrasting solos to sing and does both excellently. She sings the vivacious Esta noche with relish and is most affecting in the tender little Catalan lullaby, El Noi de la Mare. Rutterís orchestration of the latter is sensitive and simple.

Inevitably, several of Rutterís own compositions are included and they cover quite a range of styles. Among them Rejoice and be merry is ebullient and lively. Scored for brass, percussion and chorus it reminded me a bit of Sir David Willcocksí Birthday Carol. Itís a success. So too, in a very different vein, is Ave Maria, which taps Rutterís gentle vein. Another lyrical offering is New Year. This was written in 2006 for the choir of Sandringham Church to sing for Queen Elizabeth II in her eightieth birthday year. The sensitive words are by the composer himself and he gives them a winning, memorably melodic setting. We hear it in a subsequent orchestration, which is a nice one, but Iíd like to hear it sometime in the original version with organ.

The whole programme is rounded off by Melanie Marshall singing that old standard Have yourself a merry little Christmas with gentle feeling. Itís a hugely sentimental song, of course, but itís also touching when itís well done, which it is here, and Rutter, the Yuletide master, includes a poignant oboe obbligato, which just adds the right extra touch.

This CD is a bit like a Christmas stocking. You donít know what youíre going to find inside it; some of the contents youíll love and of some you may think "I wish Iíd been given something else". There are several tracks that require a rather sweet musical tooth but there are a good few delights, which balance them out. One thingís for sure, you wonít be able to fault the standard of performance. If the programme appeals, then have yourself a merry little Christmas with John Rutter.

John Quinn


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