Three Christmas discs from Alto and one from Griffin   The Christmas Memories Album
ADD stereo (most)
ALTO ALN 1920 [75:55]
  Christmas at King's College Cambridge
Choir of King's College Cambridge/David Willcocks
Simon Preston (organ)
Argo / Decca stereo ADD
ALTO ALC 1190 [65:23]
  Medieval Christmas
English Medieval Wind Ensemble/Mark Brown
Pro Cantione Antiqua
DDD. 1986
ALTO ALC 1004 [65:48]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Carols of Vaughan Williams
Cardiff Festival Choir/Owain Arwel Hughes
Robert Court (organ)
rec. Cardiff, 2010. DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4072 [62:54]
Detailed track-lists for all four CDs at end of review
A goodly and very varied bargain-price Christmas foursome here. Everything is garlanded with holly, mistletoe and pine-needle fragrance; Christmas trees, log-fires and snow abound. No doubt UK readers will hear some of this over the next month or so whether in The Arndale, the Trafford Centre, Bluewater, King’s College, concert hall or medieval church.
We start with the out and out popular music world of Christmas Memories Album. Tracks derive from LP issues spanning 1942-1960. There will be many old friends here from 1950s Christmases. The transfers are right up-front and glisten and shimmer unflinchingly. OK some of the North-American sentimentality cloys but frankly it’s irresistible unless you have already surfeited on such material wandering in a daze around your local mall or garden centre. If Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin smooch around super-luxury orchestral treatments Bobby Helms, Brenda Lee and Adam Faith revel in rock and roll; mind you it’s still underpinned with orchestral arrangements that ooze honey. Elvis is in hyper self-parody style in Blue Christmas – brace yourself. Country and Western gets a seasonal look-in with Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakeley in Silver Bells. You can rely on Bing Crosby to remind us of the Christian theme which he does fairly straight-on in God Rest Ye but have no fear he also sings White Christmas. Compare God Rest Ye with the super-operatic spin given to the Mario Lanza in O Holy Christmas – a trademark treatment. Otherwise succumb to the elite commerciality of it all. Its face finally takes on sincerity with Harry Belafonte’s gently and sensitively done Mary’s Boy Child. The entertaining notes are by Alto regular James Murray.
  Christmas at King's College Cambridge snugly fits the traditional church Christmas bill. This time the product is immersively English; something that cannot be said of the Christmas Memories disc. The accents are softly 1960s English and the singing is unfailingly sensitive – as you would expect from anything that involved Sir David Willcocks. It is varied with dynamics that are thoughtful and often delightfully dramatic as in Ding Dong Merrily on High. Contrast is secured through various ways including the presence of the organ played by Simon Preston in some carols and not in others. The tracks are speckled with medieval pieces such as the almost burly Personent Hodie. Personal favourites here include See Amid the Winter Snow where dynamic variety is done with great theatricality and emphasis and In the Bleak Midwinter which induces a shiver in its sustained white glow. John Joubert’s Torches combines a determined marching tread with a softer midnight halo. Vaughan Williams’ Christmas Carols Fantasia is heard in the magically hushed version with full orchestra (the only track with orchestra) – here the LSO and choir. This is a well-known and rightly loved version with Hervey Allen as the bass-baritone solo. Allen’s accent tends toward 1950s cut-glass but that’s OK too. The recital ends in slow-pulse – even sluggish - affirmation with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Like Christmas Memories this CD was produced by Tony Watts who clearly has a gift for this sort of programme. It’s also distinguished by something pretty rare among seasonal CDs: the sung words are reproduced in the booklet.
We track back yet further in time with Medieval Christmas from Pro Cantione Antiqua. It’s a genre sampled in the King’s College disc but inevitably filtered through the King’s style. These 32 short tracks offer a more pristine approach. No doubt scholarship has moved on since 1986 when this collection was recorded but the effect is stark and palette cleansing. Couple this with the sense of re-creating the celebrations and devotions of a far distant time. Sacred and profane facets are encompassed. This is reflected not only in the fluty rasp of the instrumental tracks but also in the forward-leaning choral singing. Solo voices stand out in vocal music locked in plainchant style contrasted with more secular and muscular treatments. Pro Cantione Antiqua numbered some of the great and most admired voices of the last century. Personal favourites in the ranks include tenors Ian Partridge, James Griffett and Neil Jenkins and baritone Michael George. All four also triumphed in the music of the British Musical Renaissance: Warlock, Finzi and Butterworth. The useful notes are by Peter Bamber. This time no sung words or translations.
Vaughan Williams and Christmas belong together and are found side by side in this Griffin CD of Carols of Vaughan Williams. The connection between composer and the Christmas story stretches from the 1926 Dickens-based On Christmas Night to the 1950s seasonal anthology cantata Hodie. Some mystical insight into the theme – and a very pleasurable one too – can be gained from a Chandos CD dating from all of six years ago now.
The present Griffin disc cuts a broad swathe through RVW’s carols and at the same time reminds us that this was a composer who, like his contemporary Kodaly, believed in community music-making in whatever setting he could serve: here the Christmas carol service or concert. That such services are also the venue for church-goers in quantity who are not otherwise church-attenders for the rest of the year is a far from disagreeable coincidence.
This Griffin CD programme was recorded by the distinguished Brian Culverhouse at Cardiff University in June and November 1995. The singing is eager and rhythmically virile. It is set in an open and pleasing acoustic which casts a slight aural halo around the words. The choir is a big one but always sensitive as for example in, Withers Rocking Hymn, Now Blessed Be Thou, Quem Pastores and Blake’s Cradle Song. These carols often take us away from familiar carol-sheet standards although there are some standards such as the well-loved O Little Town and The Truth From Above. There’s a real surge in The Salutation Carol and in The Golden Carol. Gloucestershire Wassail is pleasingly intricate when set beside the unison treatment accorded to quite a few of the carols here. Some of the carols are borne up by Robert Court’s organ playing which is notably game in All in the Morning and the final carol, the rousing On Christmas Night.
The texts are reproduced in full in the generous booklet – another strength to an already strong disc. The complementary liner-notes are by Jeffrey Davis.
By pure coincidence Owain Arwel Hughes - the conductor of the Cardiff Festival Choir - celebrated his seventieth birthday recently with three BBCNoW concerts including one on 2 December 2012 at Wrexham in which he conducted a programme including Grace Williams bold and poetic Ballads and Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony.
  Rob Barnett
A goodly and very varied bargain-price Christmas foursome here. Excellent value garlanded in holly and mistletoe and dusted with snow.
  Detailed tracklist   Christmas at King's College Cambridge
1. O Come All Ye Faithful 3.59
2. In Dulci Jubilo (setting J.L.Pearsall) 3.31
3. Blessed be that Maid 2.35
4. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen 3.19
5. Lutebook Lullaby 2.01
6. Ding Dong Merrily on High 2.00
7. Myn Lyking 2.55
8. See Amid the Winter’s Snow (Goss) 3.49
9. Personent Hodie 2.37
10. In the Bleak Midwinter 4.45
11. Coventry Carol 2.13
12. O Little Town of Bethlehem (Walford Davies) 4.00
13. Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night) 1.56
14. Away in a Manger 2.19
15. Shepherds in the Field Abiding 3.00
16. King Jesus Hath a Garden 3.49
17. Torches 1.34
18. Vaughan Williams Fantasia 11.19
(Hervey Alan (bass-baritone); London Symphony Orchestra)
19. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing 3.33
Choir of King's College Cambridge/David Willcocks
Simon Preston (organ)
Argo / Decca stereo ADD
ALTO ALC 1190 [65:23]
  The Christmas Memories Album
[1] Little Drummer Boy (Davis/Onorati/Simeone) Harry Simeone Chorale 1959
[2] Winter Wonderland (Bernard/Smith) Johnny Mathis / Percy Faith Orch 1958
[3] It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (Wilson) Perry Como 1951
[4] Let It Snow, Let It Snow (Styne/Cahn) Dean Martin / Dick Stabile Orch 1959
[5] Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree (Marks) Brenda Lee 1958
[6] Lonely Pup (Christmas Shop) (Alexander) Adam Faith / John Barry Orch 1960
[7] The Christmas Song (Tormé/Wells) Nat ‘King’ Cole 1947
[8] Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Martin/Blane) Judy Garland
[9] Sleigh Ride (Anderson) Boston Pops Orchestra / Leroy Anderson 1949
[10] Santa Baby (Jarvis/P. & T. Springer) Eartha Kitt 1953
[11] Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Coots/Gillespie) Frank Sinatra 1948
[12] Frosty The Snowman (Rollins/Nelson) Gene Autry 1950
[13] The Night Before Christmas (Trad. arr. Marks) Russ Morgan 1950
[14] Blue Christmas (Hayes/Johnson) Elvis Presley 1957
[15] Jingle Bells (Pierpoint) Frank Sinatra 1946
[16] Here Comes Santa Claus (Autry) Doris Day 1949
[17] God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Trad.) Bing Crosby 1942
[18] Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot (Carr/Connor/Leach) Nat ‘King’ Cole
[19] Silver Bells (Livingston/Evans) Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely 1950
[20] Jingle Bell Rock (Boothe/Beal) Bobby Helms 1957
[21] I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Connor) Beverley Sisters 1953
[22] Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney (Hardy/Moore) Ella Fitzgerald
[23] I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Kent/Gannon/Ram) Perry Como 1949
[24] We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Trad.) The Weavers 1951
[25] O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) (Adam) Mario Lanza 1950
[26] White Christmas (Berlin) Bing Crosby with Ken Darby Singers 1947
[27] Mary’s Boy Child (Hairston) Harry Belafonte 1956
ADD stereo (most)
ALTO ALN 1920 [75:55]
  Medieval Christmas
Ductia (English 13th Century)
Alle Psallite (French 14th/15th Century) JG IP MG
Portugaler (French 14th/15th Century)
Angelus Ad Virginem JG IP
Gregorian Chant Introitus: Puer Natus Est Nobis
In Seculum Breve (French 13th Century)
Orientis Partibus (Song of the Ass –Fr. 13th Cent.) MG
Ductia (English 13th Century)
Verbum Patris (French 12th Century) MG
E Semine Rosa (French 12th/13th Century) TP CB JG
Alleluia Psallat (Eng. 13th/14th Cent.) JG IP MG
This Yol (English 14th/15th Century)
Edi Beu Thu (English 13th Century) JG MG
Ecce Quod Natura (English 15th Century) CB JG
Nova, Nova (English 15th Century) JG
Chant - In Nativitate Domini Advertiam Missam
English Medieval Wind Ensemble/Mark Brown
Pro Cantione Antiqua
DDD. 1986
ALTO ALC 1004 [65:48]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Carols of Vaughan Williams
Hereford Carol (Come all ye faithful Christians)
Quem Pastores (Shepherds left their flocks)
Snow in the Street (From far away we come to you)
Song of the Crib (Joseph dearest)
The Holy Well (As it fell out one May morning)
The Salutation Carol (Noel, this is the salutation)
Blake's Cradle Song (Sweet dreams)
O Little Town (O Little town of Bethlehem)
Gloucestershire Wassail (Wassail, Wassail)
The Miraculous Harvest (Rise up, rise up)
Children's Song of The Nativity (How far is it to Bethlehem)
The Golden Carol (Now is Christmasye-come)
Wither's Rocking Hymn (Sleep, baby, sleep)
This Endris Night (Behold the great Creator)
Coverdale's Carol (Now blessed be thou)
The Truth from Above (This is the truth from above)
All in the Morning (It was on Christmas Day)
Sussex Carol (On Christmas night)
Cardiff Festival Choir/Owain Arwel Hughes
Robert Court (organ)
rec. Cardiff, 2010. DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4072 [62:54]