A Winter’s Light - A Christmas Collection
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) This is the truth (2010) [3:24]
Trad. arr. Jonathan RATHBONE (b. 1957) Gabriel’s Message (1991) [1:45]
Jan SWEELINCK (1562-1621) Hodie Christus natus est (1619) [3:46]
Michael PRAETORIUS (c1571-1621) arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen [4:03]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Sing Lullaby (1920) [3:31]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998) Hymne à la Vierge (1954) [3:58]
Bob CHILCOTT Sweet was the song (2010) [4:15]
Plainchant arr. David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919) Of the Father’s heart begotten (1582/1963) [3:03]
Giovanni GABRIELI (c1555-1612) Hodie Christus natus est (1597) [4:17]
Bob CHILCOTT Rejoice and be merry (2010) [1:50]
Walford DAVIES (1869-1941) O little town of Bethlehem (1920) [5:30]
C. Armstrong GIBBS (1869-1960) The Stable Door (1933) [2:29]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) arr. John E. WEST (1863-1929) O Holy Night (1847/1910) [5:40]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak mid-winter (1909) [4:43]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) The Christ-child (2009) [5:02]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) Nativity Carol (1971) [4:26]
James Lord PIERPONT (1822-1893) arr. Ben PARRY (b. 1965) Jingle Bells (1859/1992) [2:45]
Bob CHILCOTT Christmas-tide (1997) [3:08]
Greg LAKE (b. 1947) arr. Jonathan RATHBONE I believe in Father Christmas (1974/?) [3:17]
Jonathan RATHBONE Carol Medley (1993) [3:14]
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
Martin Ford (organ)
rec. 10-12 February 2011, Tonbridge School Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, UK. DDD
Texts and English translations included
NAXOS 8.573030 [73:48]
One of the first Vasari Singers discs that I reviewed was their 2007 album for Guild Records, Noël, Nouvelet (review). Can it really be five years since that album? Well, here’s another Christmas disc from them and for it they’ve moved (led by a star?) to Naxos.
I notice that my colleague John Sheppard also reviewed that earlier disc and I hope he won’t mind me reproducing his opening paragraph, which read as follows:
“What do you want when you look for a CD of Christmas music? I would guess a mixture of old and new, with the old cunningly renewed and with the new not too unfamiliar in idiom or content. If that is what you want, then you certainly have it in this disc, and, what is more, you also have a disc whose musical standards in terms of both the music and the performance are extremely high.”
John’s words could have been written just as well about this new disc. Among the “old” we find offerings from the likes of Adolphe Adam, Harold Darke – his marvellous little gem now over 100 years old and delighting us still – and Herbert Howells. And there’s Sir David Willcocks’ effective arrangement of a plainchant melody. Also in the “old” category we find two Renaissance pieces. Of these I think the Gabrieli comes off best; the singing is poised and polished and every time Gabrieli sets the word “alleluia”, which happens quite often, the singers invest it with real bounce. Less successful, to my ears, is the Sweelinck piece and the reason is that Jeremy Backhouse gets his singers to deliver it in too smooth and legato a fashion. Here’s a piece that cries out for exultant, full-throated singing and for “oomph” in the rhythms but it doesn’t really get it here.
In the “old cunningly renewed” category surely comes Jan Sandström’s arrangement of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen. I hadn’t encountered it until, by coincidence, it cropped up on another review disc just a couple of weeks ago. In Sandström’s piece Praetorius’ chorale is sung against a background of hummed cluster chords; it’s most effective and wonderfully tranquil. The Vasari Singers do it splendidly: the music has a gentle luminosity, which comes over in their singing of it. The very slow-moving music must require great technical control, which it clearly receives here.
Bob Chilcott’s music is most definitely in the “new” category and yet here too there’s an element of cunning renewal. Of the four pieces of his in this programme the first three come from a larger work, a Carol Cycle in eight sections, entitled On Christmas Night. By chance I’d heard a recording of the whole cycle on a publisher’s sampler disc only a couple of weeks before. I thought the cycle pleasant enough but a bit on the bland side and with a degree of ‘sameness’ about much of the music. The decision just to offer three movements on this disc and to intersperse them with other music works very well, I think – to be fair, Chilcott has designed the cycle so that readings can be given in between the carols. What Chilcott does in each movement of On Christmas Night is to set familiar words to a tune of his own and then to offer as a kind of counterpoint a second traditional carol but this time sung to its original music. Thus an old favourite – like Jeremy Backhouse in his notes, I won’t say which one – is heard in combination with Chilcott’s new tune for This is the truth sent from above. Chilcott’s tune may not match the haunting Herefordshire traditional melody so memorably arranged by Vaughan Williams but it’s a very nice tune that sticks in the memory. He gives us another winning melody for Sweet was the song, once more combined with a ‘standard’ carol, and then Rejoice and be merry is a rollicking, exuberant movement vividly performed here. The best of the Chilcott offerings, however, is Christmas-tide, an independent composition in which Chilcott provides a gentle, touching setting for some lines by the American poet, Janet Lewis.
Firmly in the “new” category is Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ-child, a Chesterton setting composed for the 2009 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. It’s for a cappella choir. For the most part the music is gentle yet intense and Jackson has selected some fine, reflective lines of poetry. It’s a memorable piece and it’s given a spellbinding performance by a choir that knows Jackson’s music well and has only recently given us an excellent disc largely devoted to his music, including his masterly Requiem (review). The Stable Door by Armstrong Gibbs scarcely counts as new music for it was written almost eighty years ago, but I’m going to sneak it into the “new” category on the grounds that I’d never heard it before. How can I have missed it? Jeremy Backhouse rightly draws attention to the “simplicity and gentle beauty” of this unaccompanied setting, which is dedicated to one of his relations. I found it utterly beguiling and count it as a real discovery.

The Vasari Singers always close their Christmas concerts with some seasonal sweetmeats, as they do here. Their sweetmeat makers are Jonathan Rathbone and Ben Parry, former Swingle Singers both, which shows in their arrangements. Frankly, I’m unimpressed by Rathbone’s arrangement of Gabriel’s Message, which comes early in the programme. It may have “unfettered exuberance”, as Jeremy Backhouse says, but I don’t think that what we all know as a fairly gentle, lilting tune can take the upbeat treatment to which Rathbone subjects it. Far more effective is his Swingle-style arrangement – with some help from Prokofiev! – of I believe in Father Christmas while his Carol Medley is very clever. I counted six carols in the mix, though Rathbone keeps re-introducing fragments, which makes score-keeping difficult. I defy anyone to count the number of key changes; it’s an impressive feat by Jonathan Rathbone. Also ingenious in terms of key changes – and changes of metre – is Ben Parry’s take on Jingle Bells. This must be very challenging to sing but the Vasaris pull it off with apparent ease.
That’s not surprising because the standard of singing throughout the programme is very high indeed – as we’ve come to expect from this fine ensemble. The various solos, taken by members of the choir, are all done really well. At the organ console Martin Ford makes an excellent contribution in all the accompanied pieces. This is a highly entertaining and very polished Christmas album. Mingling reflective and festive items in carefully weighted proportions, it’s just right for evening listening over the Christmas season - especially if you have a glass of something smooth and red by your side from which to sip as you enjoy the music!
John Quinn
A highly entertaining and very polished Christmas album.