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Christmas Carols with Kiri te Kanawa from Coventry Cathedral
Traditional arr. David Cullen
Coventry Carol [4:12]
In dulci jubilo [2:51]
O Come, O Come Emmanuel [4:00]
There is no Rose of Such Virtue [3:52]
The Holly and the Ivy [2:58]
Of the Father’s Heart Begotten [3:08]
The Three Kings [2:34]
I Saw Three Ships [2:34]
Ding Dong Merrily On High [2:12]
We Wish You A Merry Christmas [1:37]
O Tannenbaum [2:32]
O Little One Sweet [4:25]
Joy To The World [1:45]
Good King Wenceslas [2:28]
Carol Fantasy [4:40] (not on CD)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing [2:50]
The Shepherds’ Farewell (Berlioz) [4:39]
In The Bleak Midwinter (Holst) [4:24]
O Little Town of Bethlehem [3:21]
Torches [1:31]
The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy [2:02]
Silent Night [3:15]
Dame Kiri te Kanawa (soprano), Michael George (baritone), Timothy Norris (treble), Jouko Harjanne (trumpet)
Choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Robin Stapleton
rec. live, Coventry Cathedral, 3 December 1994
DVD Region Code 2, 3, 4, 5; Aspect Ration 4:3; PCM Stereo only
WARNER MUSIC 5186503472 [62:15 (CD) + 69:00 ]


Experience Classicsonline

This live concert captures sacred festive favourites from Kiri with special guests. To make it doubly attractive Warner have given us both the DVD of the concert and the audio only on CD.  It’s an attractive package, especially at such an inexpensive price, but your attitude to it will depend very much on how you view the arrangements.  They’re nearly all new ones by David Cullen: only Peter Cornelius’s version of The Three Kings and Berlioz’s Shepherds’ Farewell are given in their familiar forms.  All the other carols are re-orchestrated by Cullen.  They’re all quite consciously “sweet”, without being sickly, and they’re sometimes a bit sentimental.  While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach any listener should approach this disc knowing that most of what they hear will be unfamiliar.  As a reference point, if you like John Rutter’s arrangements of the traditional carols then you’ll probably like these too.

Some of the arrangements are more successful than others.  The rustic, somewhat nostalgic orchestration of O Come, O Come Emmanuel shows this carol in a light we’re not used to from singing it in grand cathedrals. The arrangement of There is no rose of such virtue is very appealing, with a transparent treatment of the tune from Kiri set against long melismas from the choir and a flowing orchestral accompaniment.  There is a fitting majesty to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, while Silent Night has a touching simplicity.  On the other hand, the added strings detract from Bach’s harmonisation of O Little One Sweet, and In the Bleak Midwinter is rather too sentimental for my taste.  Most successful, on the whole, is The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy, which embraces its Caribbean roots enthusiastically through an infectious rhythm and a hyperactive xylophone player.

The performances are well suited to the music throughout.  Kiri looks very festive in a red and gold dress, and her voice sounds smashing.  She is a bit swoopy in the Coventry Carol that opens the concert; some unnecessary glissandi mar this piece.  For the faster numbers, however, she sounds superb, not least in The Holly and the Ivy, which has a well judged interaction between soloist and choir with subtle accompaniment from the orchestra.  Kiri’s rich, creamy voice rides the wave of the orchestra with assurance, and the acoustic of the cathedral complements her voice.  Credit should go to the sound engineers for capturing it so well.   If her contribution is strong, however, then that of baritone Michael George is even more distinguished.  He has a resonant voice which suits the grandeur of the surroundings while providing a good contrast with his colleague.  In particular his voice enriches the texture of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, though Joy to the World feels a bit underpowered because he sings it as a solo – surely this of all carols needs a choir.  His duet with Timothy Norris suits Good King Wenceslas very well.  The other soloist is virtuoso trumpet player Jouko Harjanne whose contributions really sparkle.  He makes Ding Dong Merrily on High feel like a dazzling trumpet concerto, while he really adds something to O Tannenbaum when he duets with Kiri.  He doesn’t appear often, but he is a pleasure when he does.

The orchestra all play with precision and clarity, and the frequent solo contributions sound very good indeed.  The DVD contains Cullen’s Carol Fantasy, an entertaining medley of familiar tunes that sits comfortably in the symphonic tradition of Vaughan Williams and Hely-Hutchinson’s similar works.  For some reason it isn’t included on the CD; it’s hard to know why as there would have been ample space for it.

The camera work is straightforward and entirely fitting: the chief focus, naturally enough, is the soloists, but we also get plenty of shots of the choir and the instrumental soloists in the orchestra.  We don’t see the conductor very often, but that’s not cause to complain as his gestures are very distracting when he does feature.  There are surprisingly few shots of the cathedral itself, though, save a few glances at the mighty tapestry of Christ in Glory and a few specialist shots of the pre-war remains filmed for the opening and closing credits.

All in all this is perfectly serviceable Christmas fare, though it’s also quite forgettable.  I think I'll still be going back to the carol arrangements I've grown up with, but at this budget price this package would certainly make a good stocking-filler.

Simon Thompson


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