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Christmas Organ Music
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Die Hirten an der Krippe (In dulci jubilo) from Weihnachtsbaum (1874-1876) [2:42]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) In dulci jubilo BWV 729 [1:51 ]
Sinfonia from the Christmas Oratorio [4:47]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772) Noël suisse (c.1740) [3:37]
Howard BLAKE (b.1938) ‘Walking in the air’ from The Snowman [3:36]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Op. 122 [2:38]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706) Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her [3:29]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Offertoire sur deux Noëls [7:00]
J.S. BACH Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 [4:10]
Andrew CARTER (b.1939) Toccata on Veni Emmanuel [0:42]
William LLOYD-WEBBER (1914-1982) Interlude on the Coventry Carol [2:22]
Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694) In dulci jubilo [1:38]
Sir David WILLCOCKS (b.1919) Postlude on Hark, the herald-angels sing [3:37]
Richard PURVIS (1913-1994) Prelude on Greensleeves (‘What child is this’) [3:05]
John RUTTER (b.1945) Prelude on God rest you merry, gentlemen [2:49]
Archangelo CORELLI (1653-1713) Pastorale (from the ‘Christmas’ Concerto) [3:47]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Pifa (Pastoral Symphony from Messiah) [2:34]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN Noël No.10 (c.1740) [5:12]
Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995) Prelude on The holly and the ivy [3:28]
Helmut WALCHA (1907-1991) Den die Hirten lobten sehre (Quem pastores) [1:40]
G.F. HANDEL Hallelujah Chorus (from Messiah) [3:55]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Chichester Cathedral, 16-17 August 1995. DDD.
NIMBUS NI7711 [71:45]

Experience Classicsonline


Several of the tracks from this recording also appear on another Nimbus Christmas CD which came my way at the same time, The Spirit of Christmas Present (NI7034). Those Kevin Bowyer tracks are among the best things on that other recording, so I was pleased also to be sent the parent disc for review. It is altogether a finer thing than the other CD except in one respect - there are no notes on the music for either, just a 4-page fold detailing the tracks and advertising other Nimbus recordings.

The cover of the booklet is altogether more attractive than that for Christmas Present; otherwise both are woefully inadequate, when, for example, the Daquin Noëls warrant an explanation of the 17th and 18th-century French taste for these short organ pieces based on popular Christmas tunes. For more information, see my review of a Hyperion Helios reissue of Daquin’s Noëls (CDH55319, Christopher Herrick), better still, find the notes for that CD on the Hyperion website, or, best of all, buy the CD. At the Helios budget price, it won’t break the bank. I stand by my words of two years ago: “I guarantee that all but the most puritanical Christmas-hater will find it irresistible”. The Guilmant Offertoire demonstrates how the genre was maintained, though in a much heavier style, nearer to our own time; his Chorals et Noëls pour orgue, Op.95, are among his last works.

If novice listeners know anything about Pachelbel, it is that he wrote the Canon; they might like to know also about his other music, some of it actually more worthy of extended listening than his ‘greatest hit’. If you would like to investigate his organ music further, try the 3-CD Telefunken reissue of Renaissance and Baroque Organ Music which I recommended recently (2564 694558, Herbert Tachezi - see review). His Vom Himmel hoch is attractive music, though you’ll have to listen hard to make out the tune.

Among other things that the prospective buyer might like to know, the W.S. Lloyd-Webber who composed the Interlude on the Coventry carol (track 11) is the father of the more famous Julian and Andrew and the piece is one of three such compositions, the others being based on Good King Wenceslas and God rest you merry.

The opening piece, Liszt’s depiction of the shepherds at the crib, from his Weihnachtsbaum or Christmas Tree, opens the recording in fine, lively style. Kevin Bowyer’s performance of this arrangement of In dulci jubilo shaves almost a minute off Eteri Andjaparidze’s piano performance on Naxos 8.553461 (Christmas Piano Music), 2:42 against 3:40. I much prefer Bowyer’s livelier performance but what you will obtain with the Naxos CD and from their website is some notes on Liszt’s Christmas collection as a whole and this piece in particular.

The three pieces by J S Bach, In dulci jubilo (track 2), an arrangement of the Sinfonia from the Christmas Oratorio (tr.3) and Wachet auf (tr.9) are played every bit as well as one would expect from an organist whose Bach series has been so well received - see, for example, Peter Grahame Woolf’s review of Volume 12.

Andrew Carter’s all too short Toccata on Veni Emmanuel (tr.10) is one of the most recent pieces on the CD; it poses few problems for those averse to some aspects of contemporary classical music, but it is a powerful piece and it receives a powerful performance. That the Chichester organ responds to this work as well as to the Daquin Noëls is a tribute to its builder - but why is there no specification for the instrument, such as is usually provided even in the notes on Naxos’s budget-price organ recordings?

As with the Lloyd-Webbers, questions of familial identity are raised by Johann Michael Bach, composer of In dulci jubilo on track 12. He was the son of J S Bach’s great uncle and a member of the prolific dynasty of musicians which came to an end with J S’s sons.

I wasn’t too sure why Richard Purvis’s Prelude on Greensleeves (tr.14) was included, even when it is dressed up as ‘What child is this?’ (Or not dressed up, since, of course, the words are not included.) Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant enough piece and it’s as well performed as all the other items. On the other hand, it’s a measure of Walking in the Air (tr.5) that, popular as it is, it doesn’t sound hackneyed or out of place sandwiched between Daquin and Brahms. Bowyer gives it the full treatment without making it sound too sentimental or overblown. Actually, if anything, it’s the following Brahms Es ist ein’ Ros entsprungen that sounds a little twee.

John Rutter’s Prelude on God rest you merry is attractive, though without that cheeky style of most of his Christmas music - a style which I love, but which I know many lovers of classical music abhor. The playing of the following Pastorale from Corelli’s Concerto grosso, Op.6/8, known as the ‘Christmas’ concerto, is, I think, a rare miscalculation - non-one now (I hope) wants the slow movements of Corelli’s concerto dragged out as it and other works by his contemporaries are on a Karajan recording which remained in the catalogue far too long, but I think that Bowyer’s opening tempo goes to the opposite extreme: it’s a little too fast, for all that he compensates later.

Mercifully, the CD on which Karajan murders the Corelli, Torelli, etc., seems finally to have been deleted but be warned, DGG 415 3012, coupling the Corelli with Vivaldi’s Seasons and Albinoni’s Adagio, seems still to be on the loose, at full price, too. If you want to hear the whole concerto, in company with the other Op.6 concertos, go for Nicholas McGegan’s performances on two super-budget price Harmonia Mundi CDs (HCX395 7014 and 7015) which I reviewed last year.

The Pifa from Handel’s Messiah on the following track, music in much the same vein, sounds much better and the contrasting liveliness of the Daquin Noël (tr.18) is equally enjoyable. Nimbus fail to tell you that this is No.10, Noël grand jeu et Duo. Bowyer takes it just a shade faster than Herrick on the Helios recording to which I refer above; both performances are excellent. The quality of the music in Bowyer’s performance here may well lead you to the complete Helios CD; it certainly won’t break the bank.

Helmut Walcha, composer of the penultimate track, is much better known as one of the finest interpreters of Bach’s organ music on DGG Archiv recordings still competitive today though, sadly, rapidly falling victim to the deletions axe. I don’t recall hearing any of this own works before, but this arrangement of the German version of Quem pastores laudavere, better known in English as the tune of Jesu good above all other, is attractive. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Messiah rounds off the CD in a most stirring manner.

For all my minor reservations about presentation, the excellent performances and very good recording make this by far the most attractive of the four Christmas CDs which have come my way so far this year. If it leads you to some of Kevin Bowyer’s other Nimbus recordings of Bach, and/or his Toccata Classics recordings of Alkan (see my recent review of TOCC0030), that makes it even more recommendable.

Brian Wilson 

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