The First Christmas
The Elizabethan Singers/Louis Halsey
Simon Preston (organ); Wilfred Parry (piano)
Full track listing at end of review
rec. Holy Trinity Church, Kensington, London, July 1963, April 1966
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2064 [63:17 + 66:52]

It has seemed a little strange to be listening to these discs outside the Christmas season, although I suppose that it is no stranger than it must have been to be recording them in April or July. It does however emphasize that what we have here is not merely a collection of music suitable for Christmas (or, in one case, for Easter) but a wonderful overview of British composers active in the 1960s, many represented by several contrasting pieces. Whilst obviously not every composer active at the time is there, it must be said that to have nearly fifty items from that period is exciting both in prospect and in reality. I have reorganized the contents list in the heading to this review so that the composers are shown in alphabetical order rather than the more random but well contrasted order in which they appear on the discs. I hope that this gives a clearer idea of the extent to which particular composers are represented, and to which these discs fill gaps in the catalogue.

Eloquence are usually among the better reissue companies when it comes to the quality of their booklets. Often excellent essays about the performers and music are included. In this case they had a problem in that, as with all vocal music, the listener needs to be able to follow the words being sung. Accordingly no less than 17 pages of the booklet are devoted to the texts of all of the items on the discs, together with the names of their authors and composers. The track listing in the booklet gives merely the title and duration of each piece and there are no background notes.

Novello published a book of fifty-one carols, some new and some arrangements, in 1963. Just over half of the items on these discs were included in that volume and I believe that the rest followed in subsequent publications by Novello although I do not have them to hand. I do not know what Novello had hoped for, but in practice the first volume of Oxford’s “Carols for Choirs” which had been published a couple of years earlier has come to be regarded, together with its various successors, as the standard Christmas collection for many choirs. I hope that these discs will encourage such choirs to cast their nets wider. The variety of music here is considerable. There are many arrangement of well known carols, the most entertaining and imaginative of which are probably those by Malcolm Williamson, but there are also many original works. These are mainly settings of earlier words, including John Gardner’s brief but memorable two-part setting of “When Christ was born of Mary free”, but others, including Bernard Naylor’s “Ecce puer” to words by James Joyce, make use of more modern poems. Perhaps it would be true to say that many composers have modified, but not dumbed down, their usual style at that time for the specific needs of choirs at Christmas but the musical quality and variety remains high.

Standards of performance are also very high. The Elizabethan Singers were one of the finest professional choirs in England at that time, singing with energy, accuracy and considerable beauty of tone, although occasionally more vibrato than might be expected from a comparable choir today. I sat entranced through the length of both discs. My only regret is the lack of some of the more interesting items from “Sing Nowell”, including Elizabeth Lutyens’ “Nativity” and Adrian Cruft’s “The Star-Song”, but unfortunately they were not selected for recording at the time. A clear opportunity for choirs wanting to explore unusual material.

You may think that you do not want discs of carols at this time of year, but think again. This is music that is enjoyable at any time, and by next Christmas you may have forgotten about this set. To do that would be a real loss of potential musical pleasure.

John Sheppard

Musical pleasure.

Full track listing:

Richard Rodney BENNETT (b.1936) Dormi Jesu [1:57]; Salutation Carol [5:38]; The sorrows of Mary [5:52]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The holly and the ivy [4:46]; Jesu, Thou art our Saviour [2:50]
Hugo COLE (1917-1995) Deck the halls with boughs of holly [1:21]; Away in a manger [3:01]
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) Laetabundus [3:02]
Peter Maxwell DAVIES (b.1934) Ave Maria [2:18]; Ave Plena Gratia [4:51]
Thomas EASTWOOD (1922-1999) Unto us is born a son [2:43]
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990) The First Christmas [1:23]; A babe is born [2:06]; In excelsis Gloria [1:42]
John GARDNER (b.1917) We wish you a merry Christmas [1:49]; The First Noel [4:07]; When Christ was born of Mary free [1:32]; The Shout – an Easter Carol [2:04]
Louis HALSEY (b.1929) Balulalow [1:26]
Alan HODDINOTT (1929-2008) What tidings? [3:18]
John JOUBERT (b.1927) Wassail Song [3:02]; There is no rose [2:42]; Welcome Yule [1:57]; God rest ye merry, gentlemen [4:37]; A little child there is y-born Op 48 [2:05]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) O leave your sheep [4:33]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Wassail Carol [1:49]
Nicolas MAW (1935-2009) Our Lady’s Song [2:53]; Balulalow [3:18]
John McCABE (b.1939) Coventry Carol [3:09]
Anthony MILNER (1925-2002) Out of your sleep arise [2:18]
Bernard NAYLOR (1907-1986) Ecce Puer [1:19]; Shepherds! Shake off your drowsy sleep [2:01]
Peter NAYLOR (b.1933) Eastern monarchs [1:14]
Arthur OLDHAM (1926-2003) Remember O thou man [4:14]
Simon PRESTON (b.1938) I saw three ships [1:50]
Basil RAMSEY From heaven winging [1:59]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) The Oxen [3:47]
Alan RIDOUT (1934-1996) Silent night [3:04]; The old year now is fled [1:54]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) Infant holy [2:33]
Phyllis TATE (1911-1987) The Virgin and Child [3:32]
William WALTON (1902-1983) What cheer [1:15]
Peter WISHART (1921-1984) Alleluya, a New Work is come on Hand [2:07]
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003) The Boar’s Carol [2:08]; Ding! Dong! Merrily on high [1:48]; Good King Wenceslas [2:54]