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The Herald Angels Sing - Choral music for Christmas
Ralph HOFFMANN (b. 1966)
Hark! The Herald angels sing [3:14]
Hans Georg PFLÜGER (1944 - 1999)
O du fröhliche [2:02]
Siegfried STROHBACH (b.1929)
Still, still, still [3:19]
Andrea FIGALLO (b.1972)
Christmas Lullaby [1:50]
Gottfried WOLTERS (1910 - 1989)
Zu Bethlem überm Stall [2:16]
Gustav NORDQVIST (1886 - 1949)
Jul, jul strålande jul [3:09]
David WILLCOCKS (b.1919)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [1:55]
Gottfried WOLTERS (1910 - 1989)
Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging [2:14]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571 - 1621) arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b.1954)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [3:15]
Ulrich SCHICHA (1934 - 1993)
Ihr Kinderlein, kommet [3:18]
Lasst uns lauschen [2:42]
Leise rieselt der Schnee [1:51]
Otfried BÜSING (b.1955)
Haben Engel wir vernommen [2:26]
Trond KVERNO (b.1945)
Corpus Christi Carol [3:53]
Hans Georg PFLÜGER (1944 - 1999)
Tochter Zion, freue dich [1:47]
Carl THIEL (1862 - 1939)
In dulci jubilo [2:25]
Alfred KOERPPEN (b.1926)
Es ist für un seine Zeit angekommen [3:32]
Erhard MAUERSBERGER (1903 - 1982)
Macht hoch die Tür [3:15]
Romualds JERMAKS (b.1931)
Der Weg nach Bethlehem [2:45]
Carl THIEL (1862 - 1939)
Adeste fideles [1:59]
Javier BUSTO (b.1949)
Hodie Christus natus est [5:26]
Eduard Karl NÖSSLER (1863 - 1943)
Tröstet mein Volk [3:48]
Lajos BÁRDOS (1899 - 1986)
Wiegenlied [2:47]
Junges Vokalensemble Hannover/Klaus-Jürgen Etzold
rec. Kirche Stephansstift Hannover, 7-9 November 2008, 6-8 February 2009
CARUS 83.441 [65:24]
Experience Classicsonline

Here is a disc of some 23 carols coming from 12 countries around Europe. In the main the arrangements are for unaccompanied choir and the style is much in the vein of the superb “Carols for Choirs” edited by David Willcocks. Indeed one of his settings appears on this disc - Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The avowed aim was to throw fresh light on existing carols and melodies through the creation of new effective arrangements that are both a pleasure to sing and to hear. This ethos would seem to be behind this disc too. Many of the familiar tunes are clothed in sympathetic arrangements that the fifty amateur voices of the Junges Vokalensemble Hannover sing competently if with little inspiration. But the field of the Christmas Choral Anthology is so competitive that I’m not sure to sing well is enough. This choir don’t push any kind of emotional or dynamic envelope. This is politely demure singing with a very limited dynamic range. The title carol which opens the disc Hark the Herald Angels Sing makes almost no impact in terms of the glory, joy and praise explicit in the text. I have real problems with hymn or carol settings that claim “jazz” origins - the odd syncopation or added note chord is not jazz. Hence Andrea Figallo’s Christmas Lullaby (track 4) comes across as limp and wan.

The selected programme is stimulating in its diversity - it is interesting to come across familiar melodies with unfamiliar words - Haben Engel wir vernommen (track13) listeners in the UK will know as Angels from the realms of Glory. Jan Sandström’s setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (track 9) transcends the centuries by imitating elements of Praetorius’ plainsong-like original over an ethereal bed of contemporary wordless chords. This is extremely beautiful and plays to the choir’s strengths and is the stand-out track on the disc. Unfortunately, time and again elsewhere the choir sound like a good amateur choir without the finish, technique or polish of their professional counterparts. The lack of real dynamics and vocal blending lets them down. Solos are taken from within the choir but again lack quality. The bulk of the settings are simple carols and the abiding mood is one of gentle reflection. The group of three settings by Ulrich Schicha are moving in their purity and sincerity - Leise rieseltder Schnee (track 12) has a gently rocking barcarolle-like feel but even this should surely build to a final climax on the words “they tell of a glorious sight, the Christchild is born on this night!” Trond Kverno’s setting of the Corpus Christi Carol deserves wider circulation and in the hands of a first rate choir would be a winner. On the other hand Hans Georg Pflüger’s contributions are best passed over (I notice that these pieces are published by the company who released this disc which might suggest a commercial rather than artistic purpose behind their inclusion). They both feature a rather pointless trumpet counter-melody (again played with little flair) and in the latter Tochter Zion, freue dich (track 15) - the tune here is Handel’s See the conquering hero - which also features some distant rumbling timpani - all it achieves is to underline the gulf between the words “exult loudly Jerusalem!” and the audible result we get here.

The more one listens the more one realises that the choir are most successful in anything gentle in text and note and totally underpowered in anything requiring real attack, vigour or musical energy. So Adeste Fideles - Oh come all ye faithful to you and me (track 20) is soporific but Lajos Bárdos’ Wiegenlied which closes the recital is disarmingly beautiful. The recording was made in a warm church acoustic with the choir set back in the resonance. This helps to underline the relative strengths and weaknesses on display. It is hard to judge the contribution of conductor Klaus-Jürgen Etzold since it seems to belong to the school of non-interventionist music-making. Clearly they are a well-schooled choir but little musical personality is on display - all is tasteful but bland. There is interest here in the breadth of the settings chosen but even then I cannot feel that any of the performances could or would be considered definitive. Look elsewhere for infinitely superior carol anthologies. 
A disc to put on after the turkey when nothing too vigorous is needed to disturb a gentle snooze.

Nick Barnard


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