I was keen to review this CD for two reasons. Firstly, I tend
to be drawn to discs of enterprising and less familiar Christmas
music. Secondly, I remembered being very impressed
by a previous recording from The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus.
This new disc has lived up to expectations, not least in terms
of the interesting repertoire.
It’s true that a few old Christmas favourites are included.
However, some are in less familiar guise. It came upon the
midnight clear is not, as those of us brought up on Sir
Arthur Sullivan’s tune may think, an English carol, as
Philip Barnes points out in his extremely interesting notes.
It’s American through and through and it appears here
sung to the original American tune. It’s a pleasing melody
in compound time. It’s not as sturdy as Sullivan’s
famous tune - and I can’t see it displacing the Sullivan
version - but it’s a refreshing change to hear it this
way. We also hear O little town of Bethlehem and Away
in a manger sung to their original, enjoyable American melodies
and I’m afraid that Hopkins’ Three Kings - a Christmas
hymn I try hard to avoid each year - also put in an appearance.
Much less familiar is the set of three Christmas pieces by Virgil
Thomson, which comprise his Scenes from The Holy Nativity.
These are interesting and, as Philip Barnes says, Thomson’s
settings are very much driven by fidelity to the word patterns.
Thomson was born in the state of Missouri so it’s right
that his home state choir should offer his music. There’s
another short piece from his pen, O my deir hert. Barnes
says it’s an early piece - it’s unclear when it
was composed but the composer evidently thought sufficiently
highly of it to revise it as late as 1979. It’s a simple
strophic piece and quite disarming.
Moving forward in time we find pieces by several composers who,
at various times, have been composers-in-residence with the
choir. Yakov Gubanov is the current holder of the post and his
The garden of roses is his first offering to the choir.
It’s an impressive piece, very Russian in its expression
- and it’s sung in Russian. It features several demanding
solos, well taken from within the choir. Intelligently, it’s
paired with Tchaikovsky’s well-known setting (in an English
translation) of essentially the same text.
Gubanov’s two predecessors as composers-in-residence -
the New Zealander, Clare MacLean and the English composer, Sasha
Johnson Manning - are both represented. I’m afraid I thought
MacLean’s Susannine was just a bit too clever for
its own good. Johnson Manning’s Two Tree Carols
are more direct in their expression. The second of them, Christbaum,
a soft and gentle setting of a poem by Peter Cornelius, is especially
Philip Barnes himself contributes a piece. The Lord at first
did Adam make is a setting of an old English West Country
carol. If I read his note correctly the melody is his own. The
result sounds to me like an arrangement of a traditional tune
such as Vaughan Williams might have made - and I say that as
a firm compliment.
For me, the highlights in a fine and enterprising programme
are one of the pieces by the American, Martha Shaffer, and the
recent piece by Englishman David Bednall. I’ve come across
Bednall’s music before, principally on three Regent CDs
devoted to his music. From heaven above to earth I come
confirms the very favourable impression created by those discs.
It’s a setting of the English translation of Luther’s
hymn ‘Von Himmel Hoch’. Bednall doesn’t shy
away from setting all fifteen verses but he does so in a concise
way - the piece is less than eight minutes long - and he skilfully
varies his musical material and the forces involved for each
stanza so that there’s no wearisome repetition. Instead
it’s a most effective and interesting piece.
Martha Shaffer contributes two pieces. One - If ye would
hear the angels sing - is a relatively conventional setting
but nonetheless an attractive composition. Much more intriguing
is Hostis Herodes. This is an ingenious piece in which
the composer combines plainsong, elements of a setting by Dufay
and original musical material into what Philip Barnes rightly
terms “a beautifully worked tapestry.” I found it
a fascinating piece and it’s very well sung by the choir.
In fact everything on the programme is well sung. Just once
or twice soloists - all from the choir - sound a little taxed
by their music but overall the standard of singing is very high.
The choir has clearly been prepared very thoroughly by Philip
Barnes and the combination of adventurous, intelligently chosen
repertoire and excellent performances makes this a most welcome
seasonal gift from St. Louis
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Joseph and the Angel (Scenes from The Holy Nativity I)
Richard Storrs WILLIS (1819-1900)
It came upon the midnight clear (1850) [3:49]
Patrick ZUK (b.1968)
Ye sons of men [5:02]
Martha SCHAFFER (b.1946)
If ye would hear the angels sing (1995)[2:36]
Philip BARNES (b. 1958)
The Lord at first did Adam make (1985) [4:13]
Lewis REDNER (1830-1908)
O little town of Bethlehem [3:20]
Clare MACLEAN (b. 1958)
O my deir hert (rev 1979) [2:01]
James MURRAY (1841-1905)
Away in a manger (1885/1892) [1:51]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The crown of roses (1889) [3:11]
Yakov GUBANOV (b. 1954)
The garden of roses [[4:54]
Sasha JOHNSON MANNING (b. 1963)
Two Tree Carols [9:52]
The wise men(Scenes from The Holy Nativity II) [4:39]
Guillaume DUFAY/ Martha SCHAFFER
Hostis Herodes (2005) [8:13]
John Henry HOPKINS (1820-1891)
We three kings (1863) [3:43]
The flight into Egypt(Scenes from The Holy Nativity III)
David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
From heaven above to earth I come (2007) [7:45]