This CD of Christmas music by Thomas Hewitt Jones is the second CD devoted entirely to his music. The first was reviewed
here in November 2011. The programme presents two very different sides of Christmas: Incarnation
is a very serious reflection on Christmas while the remainder of the programme is much lighter and jollier in tone.
is an ambitious work for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus, organ and orchestra. Cast in seven movements the piece sets texts by Paul Williamson which I think have been written specially for this project. In an interesting note, Williamson explains that his words interweave the Christmas story with ‘the large-scale narrative of the Bible’. The words need - and repay - careful study.
The chorus is involved almost throughout the work but the two vocal soloists - both of whom are very good - each make just one appearance. The baritone has a substantial solo in the third movement, ‘Wandering’. The soprano appears in the fifth movement, ‘Rebirth’, which links Christmas and the Winter Solstice. Here, in an interesting bit of scoring, the soprano soloist is accompanied only by a solo clarinet, played by the excellent Harriet Hougham.
The movement that I enjoyed most was the central, ‘Nativity’, which is also the longest. Here, Hewitt Jones’s music is particularly attractive and lyrical. Elsewhere, it’s always accessible and it’s clearly very well crafted. However, I felt that in some respects it lacked sufficient variety. For one thing, a great deal of the choral writing is homophonic and I found myself wishing for a little vocal polyphony for the sake of contrast. In addition much of the music is at slow or moderate tempi. It’s not really until the penultimate movement, ‘Revelling’, that we hear fast music. In this movement, which takes us to Twelfth Night in the Christmas chronology, there’s much rustic-sounding celebration in the music, which is bracing and vigorous. The text of the final movement, ‘Epiphany’ wraps up the ideas behind the piece in a satisfying way by looking forward and back.
So far I’m ambivalent about Incarnation.
I find the idea behind the libretto interesting and thought-provoking. I’m less sure about the music. To be sure, it’s tuneful and accessible but I never really felt that it gripped me. Also, I do wonder if the work as a whole isn’t just a bit too earnest. The overwhelming impression is one of seriousness. I have no problem with that: most certainly there is a serious, reflective side to Christmas and it’s right that we’re reminded of that in works of art. However, what I think I miss in Incarnation
is much sense of the joy
In the remainder of the programme Thomas Hewitt Jones offers us the lighter side of Christmas. A Traditional Christmas
is a three-movement suite for orchestra. Essentially, each of the movements is a pot-pourri
of popular carols. These are mixed together very cleverly and in a fun way: the composer tells us that, the first movement, ‘A Christmas Cracker’ ”has featured heavily in the Classic FM Christmas playlist for the last two years.” I’m certain that all this music would go down very well indeed at a concert of popular Christmas music. Whether the suite stands up to the scrutiny of repeated listening on a CD is another question.
The programme closes with two Christmas songs sung by the Vivum Singers, which I suspect is a small pick-up group of professional singers. Baby in an ox’s stall
sets words by Hewitt Jones himself and, interestingly, he composed the tune first and then wrote words to fit around it. It’s somewhat sentimental but attractive. The relentless bounciness of Hear the angels sing
is emphasised by the close up, pop-style nature of the recording.
Incidentally, at least in the case of Incarnation
we are listening to what seem to be a somewhat manufactured recording in that the organ and the two vocal soloists and clarinettists were recorded in one location - Holy Trinity Church - while the chorus and orchestra were recorded in a completely different location, at Angel Studios. Presumably never the twain did meet.