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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Nativitas - American Christmas Carols
Conrad SUSA (b. 1935)
Three Mystical Carols [11:40]
John CARTER (b. 1930)
In Time of Softest Snow [3:18]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Shout the Glad Tidings [0:47]
arr. Mark JOHNSON
Silent Night [5:17]
Jean BELMONT (b. 1939)
Nativitas[18:02]
Leo SOWERBY (1895 - 1968)
Love Came Down at Christmas [3:20]
Charles IVES (1874 - 1954)
A Christmas Carol [2:01]
Arnold FREED (b. 1926)
Three Shepherd Carols [6:06]
Norman DELLO JOIO (1913 - 2008)
The Holy Infant's Lullaby [4:47]
Joel MARTINSON (b.1960)
There is No Rose [3:27]
arr. Edwin FISSINGER (b.1920)
I Saw Three Ships [1:51]
Henry COWELL (1897 - 1965)
Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung [2:41]
arr. Kevin OLDHAM (1960 - 1993)
Silent Night from Three Carols, Op 20 [3:46]
James Higdon (organ); Pamela Williamson (soprano solo); Lyra Pringle Pherigo (flute); Wesley Kelly (harp); Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. All Saints Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Kansas, 7-10 July 1994
NIMBUS NI5413 [67:03]

Experience Classicsonline



Once in a while a disc arrives that you stop “reviewing” and instead listen to for pure unalloyed pleasure. This is one such disc - I cannot underline enough what a box of delights it has proven to be. The CD seems to be a straight re-issue of a disc from the early 1990s. Whether it has been in and out of the catalogue I do not know and to my enduring loss it has passed me by until now. Hanging my head in shame I guess that the idea of “American Carols” sung by the Kansas City Chorale had me leaping to unfounded assumptions of it resulting in an album of saccharine cuteness. Nothing could be further from the truth - this is a superbly sung disc of extraordinary beauty and packed full of musical discoveries. Every detail of this recording oozes care and thoughtfulness. Many of the composers have links to the city of Kansas and the sequencing of the carols makes for a programme that is as satisfying in the unity and over-arching vision it provides as the individual delights of each track. 
At the time of recording in 1994 twenty of the twenty-four tracks were world premiere recordings. But do not think for an instant that this means we are treated to either carols of intractable complexity or post-modern blandness. These are settings of instant power, worth, appeal and beauty. Many of the composers were previously unknown to me but it is to their huge credit that the contributions of say Conrad Susa and especially Jean Belmont sit in the company of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell so comfortably.

The moods and chosen musical styles of the carols vary greatly but I do come away from this with an abiding sense of the reflective and meditative. The central panel of Conrad Susa triptych Three Mystical Carols - This Endrys Night carries the emotional weight of these settings and Susa’s setting is as austerely beautiful as the 15th century text he sets. At the heart of the disc lies Jean Belmont’s Nativitas. Her description of this seven song cycle which gives the disc its title is worth quoting because it holds true for her work and the disc as a whole: “The intent in Nativitas is to create a musical shape which conveys some of the anticipation, reverence, mysticism, and celebration surrounding the Birth of Jesus Christ”. I cannot think of another sequence of carols that marks this spiritual journey quite so powerfully. She uses a variety of compositional effects but the abiding style is a neo-medieval one - so described in David Wright’s quite excellent liner-notes - that has echoes of Vaughan Williams’ fusion of ancient and modern in his Mass in G minor. The effect there, as here, is to create a musical message that seems to transcend time and space. There is an emotional momentum that builds through this sequence too that means that by the final Noe, Noe, psallite noe (tr. 14) the release on the words “Rejoice Jerusalem for the Saviour is born” is disarmingly powerful.

But this is to have passed over the carol that immediately preceded the cycle. Can it be possible to shed any new light on Silent Night? When the arranger is Mark Johnson the answer is a resounding yes. Before I even arrived at the Belmont cycle I had repeated Silent Night three times! As I write this I can still hear the arrangement in my head. The task facing any arranger of any style is how to “add” to an existing piece without distorting the message of the original. Johnson’s solution - brilliant in its simplicity (and part of the brilliance is to acknowledge the inherent simplicity of the original) - is to write the first and third verses in two parts only. The first verse is for the women’s voices - meltingly pure and true here - with the unchanged original melody in the alto line with a descant above. We all have favourite descants for various carols but here we get a sinuous melismatic line that one moment floats above, the next intertwines lovingly and finally harmonises exquisitely the original. I find this totally heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The central verse is more traditionally harmonised in four parts before the final verse reverts to two parts but this time for the men. It feels like a journey from the heavenly angelic voices of the start to the more earthy celebration of the men at the end. So much is achieved with such basic resources - five minutes of perfection.

And so it proves with the whole programme; Sowerby’s Love Came Down at Christmas providing a lush rich setting to follow on from the meditations by Belmont. Ives’ A Christmas Carol is almost disconcertingly normal but beautiful all the same. Arnold Freed’s Three Shepherd Carols are more akin to John Rutter, sympathetically written for a trained choir but clearly a pleasure to sing - perhaps less profound than some of the settings here but again that simply reflects the skill in the programming permitting some relaxation in the spirit of the disc. The organ makes one of its relatively rare contributions to Dello Joio’s The Holy Infant’s Lullaby. Again, simplicity of utterance and extraordinary lyrical beauty are much in evidence - another gem. And so it continues with the remainder of the programme, each item a delight. As a very poignant appendix the programme closes with another setting of Silent Night. This time it is by Kevin Oldham. Oldham - a native of Kansas City died at the age of 33 the year before this recording was made and, although it does not say as much anywhere, I suspect this setting for solo soprano, flute and harp was added as some kind of memorial. Again, it is the simplicity that resonates so strongly in the memory. This time the flute discreetly carries the original tune with soprano spinning a tender counter-melody of silvery beauty over a gently rippling harp accompaniment. Pure genius.

The Kansas City Chorale is simply glorious. They consist of six voices per line in the standard SATB format. Their intonation, attack, ensemble, vocal blending and all-round precision is flawless. Yet over and above all these qualities there is an inherent musicality, a rightness to their phrasing that lifts this beyond the merely good into the superlative - all credit to their conductor Charles Bruffy. Praise to the production team too. This is a beautifully engineered disc - yes there is a little traffic noise audible over good quality headphones but nowhere near enough to disturb the rapt atmosphere the choir creates. The few organ contributions are beautifully played and the organ is well integrated into the sound-stage - full and dynamic without being overpowering. This is a disc that deserves to be listened to all year round and not ghettoised into December alone! Good value too at only a couple of minutes shy of seventy. Easily the best all round choral disc of “music for the festive season” that I have heard in years.

One last observation - whoever is responsible for supervising re-releases at Nimbus and Wyastone Estate at the moment is doing quite a job. Just recently I have heard this disc, another choral disc of Walton and Holst, the magnificent Copland re-issues licensed from MusicMasters and we are forever indebted for their over-seeing the re-birth of Lyrita. Whoever you are thank you and more please!

As beautiful a disc of precious Christmas music as you are likely to hear this or any year.

Nick Barnard 
 


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