Although described as a “Christmas Spectacular”, this is not the volcanic blockbuster with huge forces involved as the cover might imply. The choir numbers 42 voices (only 6 tenors) and there are just ten instrumentalists, although the organ looks gigantic in the booklet photograph and boasts an impressive array of 84 stops - listed in full in the booklet. Indeed the Strauss Solemn procession
, written for 24 players, is actually scaled down here to eleven. What it is actually doing here is not clear – it is not a specifically Christmas piece – and the ten instrumentalists cannot realise the full-throated roar of the Wagnerian ensemble that Strauss clearly had in mind.
The composer most heavily represented here is John Rutter. It has become fashionable in recent years to treat his music with a somewhat condescending air, as a composer who started writing for amateurs in a style that they could absorb. This was before such a tendency became more readily tolerated. The four pieces included in this collection were all written in the 1970s and 1980s when the ‘progressive’ style was in the ascendant. Indeed the finale of the Gloria
has overtones of Bernstein’s similarly despised Mass.
Nowadays Rutter’s deliberate mis-accentuation of the Latin text in the Gloria
sounds old-fashioned in its own turn; we tend to prefer a more natural inflection of the language. The little carol What sweeter music
remains an absolute charmer, with a tune that sticks in the head. Rutter’s setting of Deck the hall
is a whirlwind scherzo, beautifully sprung here.
The pieces by Mack Wilberg, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, have a slightly jazzy feel that is beginning to sound a little old-fashioned; but the choir have great fun with them and the organ accompaniments are nicely rhythmically pointed.
The settings by Sir David Willcocks sound quite gentlemanly by the side of his more jazzy successors, but they remain masterpieces of their style. The fanfare which precedes Adeste fideles
brings a gloriously brazen entry from the organ, after which the carol tune itself sounds almost overpowered. Indeed in the final verse the melody is quite overwhelmed by the descant and brass accompaniment. Similarly the organ is rather strong for the relatively small number of singers in Unto us is born a Son
. After the heavy sound of the fanfare the choral delivery of Hark the herald angels sing
makes a less than spectacular ending to the disc.
I had not previously encountered Parry’s setting of Welcome Yule!
, a text most familiar nowadays from Britten’s A ceremony of carols.
It is described rather ungraciously in the anonymous booklet notes as “a small curiosity”, and indeed it is little more than that, a glee-club number rather than anything substantial. Vaughan Williams’ folksong arrangement which he adapted to the words of O little town of Bethlehem
gains nothing from the addition of a brass accompaniment by Indra Hughes and a new descant by Philip Walsh.
There is also an item for organ solo, written by one of the organists on this disc: John Wells’s variations would be welcome as a church recessional, but seem rather small-scale at the outset and then develop into a grander style in a rather unmotivated and disconnected manner. The final section appears to veer off in another direction, echoing the Welsh folksong Dadl Dau
which was also used by William Mathias in the finale of his Harp Concerto
– or something very like it.
The two items by Michael Leighton-Jones are very light fare indeed. The Christmas medley
is just what its title suggests, a concoction of mainly ‘pop’ tunes complete with “wah-wah” mute, wood blocks and other jazzy accoutrements. I don’t ever again want to hear Sleigh ride
played in counterpoint with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
. His arrangement of The holly and the ivy
is more traditionally orientated.
It is not clear precisely which Christmas market this disc is aimed at – those who enjoy the Leighton-Jones medley are unlikely to appreciate the Richard Strauss piece, and vice versa
– but the choir sing with enthusiasm and the recording has plenty of presence. As the booklet note states, “there is something for everybody in this programme”. Otherwise the notes are a bit scanty on information about the dates of some of the music and composers – the information given in this review has been derived from various other sources.
Paul Corfield Godfrey