If you are looking for a recommendable, no-frills, no gimmicks, but imaginative collection of Christmas music, well sung by an English cathedral choir and well recorded, this could be it. If, in addition, you admire the generosity of the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral, who supported the making of this recording, or would even like to join them - details of how to do so are included in the booklet - these could be added incentives.
It may not be as glamorous as the CD/DVD combination of Kiri te Kanawa’s Christmas recording with the combined Coventry and Lichfield Cathedral choir which Simon Thompson reviewed last year (Warner 5186503472 - see review
) but some will think it all the better for that. ‘Big name’ Christmas recitals tend to be nine-day wonders, best played once and put aside - ST thought Kiri’s recording ‘perfectly serviceable Christmas fare ... [but] also quite forgettable’ - whereas the likes of this Nimbus reissue can be brought out year after year. It certainly joins my small section of Christmas stand-bys.
The programme is fairly predictable, but by no means over-conservative: the excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Christus
, ‘When Jesus our Lord was born in Bethlehem - There shall a star of Jacob come forth’, makes a welcome change from the same composer’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing
. Gerald Hendrie’s There is no rose
, Lennox Berkeley’s Look up, Sweet Babe
, Garth Edmundson’s organ arrangement of Vom Himmel hoch
, and Benjamin Britten’s New Year Carol
are all welcome comparative rarities. John Tavener’s The Lamb
was comparatively recent in 1996. I had not completely absorbed its idiom then, but the Lichfield choir had.
Andrew Lumsden had been the cathedral’s music director for only four years and Robert Sharpe the organist for just two years when the recording was made, but it is clear that they were working well with each other and with the choir, from whom they coax some good, often very good singing. Even the less familiar material is well handled - there’s the odd uncomfortable moment, as in the Lennox Berkeley (tr.13), but that’s the exception. It’s a measure of how good the singing is that their rendition of Tavener’s The Lamb
(tr.14) made me wonder why I had been so slow to absorb it. They make its idiom sound as beautiful as Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down
I understand why William Crotch’s Lo! Star-led chiefs
was placed last on the CD - it hardly makes for the ideal conclusion. It comes logically at this point because it relates to the Epiphany (January 6th
) rather than to Christmas, but so does the Crashaw poem set by Lennox Berkeley, which comes near the centre of the CD. The notes are ambiguous about this piece, describing it as ‘charming’ but admitting that its composer’s music sounds like a blend of Handel and Mozart but ‘rather more pallid than either’. Britten’s New Year Carol
which immediately precedes it (tr.17) is written in a timeless, rather than an overtly 20th
-century manner, but the contrast of styles - and musical quality - between the two is noticeable.
You may think the notes less important for a recording of this type, but those offered here, by Geraint Lewis, are informed and informative - and well worth reading. The booklet is nicely set off by an attractive painting of the cathedral and close in the snow. One small grouse: most, but not all, the composers’ and arrangers’ dates are given. Why is Lennox Berkeley listed as (b.1903) and Elizabeth Poston as (b.1905) when he died seven years and she nine years before this recording was made?
This CD is up against strong competition, much of it at mid- or budget-price, and some of it from better-known rivals, such as King’s College Choir, but I enjoyed hearing it as much as anything from Cambridge or Oxford and more than any rival new issues or reissues which I’ve heard this year. And in late October, too!