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Veni Emmanuel1 [3:53]
Coventry Carol1 [3:56]
Noël Nouvelet2 [2:49]
Little Drummer Boy2 [3:31]
In the Bleak Midwinter1 [3:59]
This is the Truth2 [3:45]
I wonder as I wander2 [4:30]
My Dancing Day1 [3:07]
Es ist ein’ ros2 [4:36]
Wexford Carol1 [4:37]
Tracks marked 1 arranged by Christian Forshaw, tracks marked 2 arranged by Jeremy Holland-Smith. All tracks by anonymous composers except 4 & 8 which are based on versions by Gustav Holst
The Sanctuary Ensemble: Christian Forshaw (saxophones, church organ, percussion); Grace Davidson, Joanna Forbes, Katie Trethewey, Amy Wood (singers); Alexia Kalogiannidis (backing vocals); Jeremy Holland-Smith (chorus director, organ); Ian Cape (percussion)
rec. Church of St. John the Baptist, Cockayne Hatley Bedfordshire England, and Integra Studios, September 2008

Experience Classicsonline

This is the third CD of Christmas music I’ve reviewed this week and the diversity has been remarkable. Yet of the three this is the one that pushes the boundaries of expectation the most. It is - as I am sure was the intent - uncategorisable. Saxophonist Christian Forshaw is the driving force here. He is listed as performer (playing saxophone, church organ and percussion), producer and executive producer, engineer, editor and mixer. Integra was founded by Forshaw to allow him to pursue exactly his own creative path. So if you don’t like this album you know who to call. In essence ten well known carols are meditated upon (arranged is too limited a description) by a four voice female group over a warm bed of saxophone, organ and discreet percussion. Forshaw and his Sanctuary Ensemble have had considerable success with this mainly mellow and reflective format and admirers of this style will need no further persuasion.

The execution of the disc is immaculate and in its close-miked chosen style is technically very proficient. Oddly, it left me almost totally unmoved. The singing of Coventry Carol (track 2) is superbly controlled and as beautifully blended as one could hope but that and then Forshaw’s musings that follow - over an equally beautiful vocalise - leave me strangely cold. It feels as though so much effort has gone into the finessing and refinement of the product that the humanity of the performance has been left behind. Surely carols should embody joy and wonder and a sense of awe, all of these qualities have been polished away here. Don’t get me wrong this is pristine playing and singing but I find it disconcertingly sterile. One of my all-time favourite albums was the extraordinary Officium with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard ensemble on ECM - an album which was either loved or loathed in turn. I think I was hoping for something similar here with Forshaw’s beautiful saxophone - personally I would have preferred it to be recorded further back in the mix - extemporising around the sung carols. The one track that approaches this style is number 9 (mis-listed as iv in the liner) - es ist ein’ ros. There is a curious alchemy between the human voice and the quasi-vocal saxophone that at times plays tricks upon the ear: sometimes you think you are hearing a fifth voice or a second saxophone. Jeremy Holland-Smith is the arranger here as well as directing the choir and generally I prefer his arrangements throughout the disc to Forshaw’s. For much of the rest of this very short album - less than 40 minutes playing time is extraordinarily poor value - we are given beds of sustained organ chords blending into the church acoustic over which Forshaw wanders - literally as well as musically since towards the end of track 10 Wexford Carol his saxophone recedes into the distance. I would say it is aiming for a faux-spirituality; the contrived being passing off as the profound. Information supplied with the disc is little more than a track and personnel listing. Perhaps the rationale is that the target audience here do not want more than that but I for one do. Neither the CD nor the Forshaw website ( elaborate on the detail of the concept. A short review of a short disc.

An album that will either delight or frustrate.

Nick Barnard


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