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Palestrina Choir



Christmas with the Palestrina Choir
The Palestrina Choir, St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral Dublin/Blánaid Murphy
rec. St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland, January and May, 2008. DSD. 5.1 surround sound.
Booklet with texts and translations.
St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral Hybrid SACD71812221361 [73:31]
Experience Classicsonline

Christmas with the Palestrina Choir

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Hodie Christus natus est [1:17]
Adeste fideles [4;11]
I Saw Three Ships [2:19]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-56) O Holy Night [5:25]
The Wexford Carol [5:42]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing [3:13]
Don Oíche Úd I mBeithil [2:31]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Bulalow [1:36]
Once in Royal David’s City [4:37]
Colin MAWBY (b.1936) Enjoy the World [1:59]
Make a Joyful Noise to the Lord [2:17]
In Dulci Jubilo [2:40]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c.1637-1707) Chorale Prelude: In Dulci Jubilo [2:21]
Suantraí na Maighdine [2:55]
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen [3:19]
Ding Dong Merrily on High [1:33]
Away in a Manger [2:48]
Oíche Nollag [2:35]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: This Little Babe [1:39]
The First Nowell [5:26]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Chorale Prelude: In dir ist Freude [2:40]
Fintan O’Carroll Sunatraí ár Slánaitheora [2:23]
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Deo Gracias (Adam lay i-bounden) [1:15]
Franz GRUBER Silent Night [3:15]
Rorate Cæli [3:23]

To excite the critical faculties, a Christmas CD needs to have some special appeal. Of the recordings which I’ve reviewed this year, for example, Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (Saydisc CD-SDL366) present the music on their CD with such gusto that I haven’t been able to get some of their performances out of my head, while Christmas with the Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM202) is all that you’d expect it to be from this superb ensemble. The Palestrina Choir is the resident choir of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Dublin, but, apart from the authoritative sound of their name, this CD doesn’t have much in the way of special appeal.

You might say that the backbone of this programme is formed by the four excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (tracks 1, 8, 19 and 23) interspersed throughout it, the sinews the traditional carols which, presumably, are meant to be its main selling point, and the flesh the less familiar items, chiefly the traditional Irish carols, sung in Gaelic, and the new works by Colin Mawby (tr. 10 and 11) and Fintan O’Carroll (tr. 22). I should have liked more information about these two – the booklet contains texts only, with no other notes apart from recording dates and the like; we aren’t given so much as the composers’ dates. I couldn’t even find mention of the total timing, though, at nearly 74 minutes, the producers have no need to hide their light under a bushel.

In fact, you’ll find that there is a good deal on the web about Colin Mawby – he even has a Wikipedia article. What help make this recording special are his arrangements of well-known carols and his own original compositions. Born in 1936, he was Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, where he built on and extended the achievements of his mentor George Malcolm. Isn’t it about time that some of Malcolm’s pioneering recordings, of the likes of Palestrina, were restored to the catalogue? Mawby’s version of I saw three ships (tr.3) sounds rather like John Rutter – though not quite so individual; I don’t mean to imply that it sounds derivative. It goes with a real swing as performed here.

I was pleased to hear Mawby’s two original works here – the ethereal Enjoy the World and Make a Joyful Noise – and they are pretty well performed by the boys’ voices. The spirit of Benjamin Britten is not far from these pieces, though they never sound imitative.

Fintan O’Carroll doesn’t warrant a Wikipedia article but there are some references to him on the web and you can download some of his music, including his 1982 Celtic Alleluia. His Sunatraí ár Slánaitheora (Lullaby of our Saviour) is an attractive lullaby, with clear Celtic influences; like the Mawby pieces, it’s well sung here.

If you want the items from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, you’d be better going for a complete recording which offers all the items in sequence; only about a third of the work is contained here and Britten’s carefully thought out sequence is thereby disrupted.

In fact, too, I was less than impressed by the somewhat tentative singing of the opening item from the Ceremony, Hodie puer natus est. The boys’ tone is no match for that of the best English cathedral choirs; neither the diction nor the rhythm is as firm as, for example, that on the complete performance by the Christ Church, Oxford, Cathedral Choir – not currently available but well worth looking out for in its earlier incarnations on ASV CDQS6030 or CDWHL2097. This opening piece from the Ceremony is usually sung as a processional and a capella, but here there is no sense of the voices entering from the distance and the singers need to be helped by a rather obtrusive accompaniment. If you particularly want the Ceremony sung by a Roman Catholic choir, go for Westminster Cathedral version on Hyperion CDA66220. Alternatively, my colleague Dominy Clements particularly recommended the Finchley Children’s Music Group, with Noyes Fludde, on Somm SOMMCD212 – see review.

Perhaps this music is just too well known for anything but the very best; I was much more impressed by the boys’ singing in the less well known items. As far as the Britten items are concerned, by the time that we get to Deo gracias on track 23, the boys’ singing has greatly improved, though both they and the harp accompaniment still sound a little backward.

The other out-of-the-ordinary pieces here are the arrangements of traditional Irish works by David Mooney (The Wexford Carol, tr.5, Don Oíche Úd I mBeithil, The Story of that Night in Bethlehem, tr.7 and Suantraí na Maighdine, The Virgin’s Lullaby, tr.14) and Raymond O’Donnell (Oíche Nollag, The Night is Lit, tr.18). The Wexford Carol receives a decent, but by no means exceptional performance and this is true of the other Mooney and O’Donnell pieces, except that track 7 is particularly beautiful and the singing on track 14 is some of the best on the whole CD.

Otherwise, the standard items receive perfectly acceptable performances, though nothing special to offset the fact that there are so many very decent recordings of this material in all price ranges – some of it even from Roman Catholic choirs – The First Nowell (Griffin GCCD4031) Adeste Fideles (Hyperion CDA66668) and Christmas Vespers (CDA67522) from Westminster Cathedral, for starters.

Rather illogically, Buxtehude’s Prelude on In dulci jubilo follows the singing of that piece – shouldn’t a prelude actually precede? I’d have liked a bit more oomph, too, at times in the singing of this piece, though it’s otherwise very acceptable and the organist - David Grealy, acknowledged in very small print at the end of the booklet - plays the prelude well. Even more oddly, this Christmas collection ends where it should have begun with the Advent prose Rorate cæli, ‘Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above.’

With rather tentative rendering of the plainchant, this final track ends the recording on a less than auspicious note. I hate to be negative about boys’ voices; I’m sure you’d be more than happy to hear these singers at the main Latin Mass on Sunday morning, but they just don’t pass muster on a record of Christmas music when there is so much better on offer.

Full marks, though, to the solo treble in Once in Royal David’s City; he makes a good fist of a piece in which even the chosen soloist at the King’s College, Cambridge, Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols usually sounds a trifle shaky. You wouldn’t expect an earth-shaking performance from the probationers in Away in a manger but it’s certainly much better sung than most children of this age could manage.

The recorded sound is very acceptable, though the choir sound a little backward in places, especially when the trebles are singing on their own, at least as heard in stereo.

I began by saying that a Christmas recording has to be special. Unless you particularly want a Christmas recording in surround sound or are especially keen to acquire the modern pieces which I have singled out, or want a souvenir of the choir – you may know one of the choristers or probationers, for example – I’m not sure what the special appeal of this recording might be.

Brian Wilson


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