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Carols from the Old and New Worlds - Volume III
Chamber Choir Ireland/Paul Hillier
rec. June 2012 and January 2014, All Hallows College Chapel, Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland
Texts: English, French, German translations included
Track-Listing at end of review

As the title makes clear, this is Paul Hillier’s third volume of Christmas music from both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve collected them all as they’ve come out – the first was recorded as long ago as 1993 – and have found them consistently enjoyable, not least through the inclusion of some fascinating and unexpected rarities. A different vocal ensemble has been used in each case: the Theatre of Voices sang Volume I (HMA1957079), The Pro Arte Singers contributed Volume II (now deleted, I believe) and now Hillier directs Chamber Choir Ireland. In all three cases the standard of singing is exceptionally high. We should not overlook another Hillier Christmas album, even though it was not part of this series: The Christmas Story (HMU807565). Common to all these collections, besides a high standard of musicianship, has been the inclusion of a number of arrangements by Paul Hillier himself.

To this latest collection Hillier has provided a good number of his own original compositions or arrangements. It’s a minor disappointment that, subjectively, I feel he’s least successful with the arrangements of the two best-known carols. Both O come, all ye faithful and Ding Dong Merrily on High are arranged in ways that seem unduly elaborate to me, though that’s purely a matter of personal taste.

Other pieces are much more successful. Hillier fits Thomas Ravenscroft’s words, Remember, O thou man, to a Danish tune, thought to originate in the eighteenth century. The result is meditative and rather lovely. Even more appealing is his arrangement for tenors and basses of a Piedmontese carol, Gesù bambin l'è nato. Hillier describes the carol as “delectable” and I completely agree. There’s also an original setting by Paul Hillier of Adam lay ibounden. This is very interesting: the music suits the medieval words and the result is a very thoughtful setting.

Fittingly, given that an Irish choir is involved in this project, there are several Irish items in the programme, including one by the contemporary composer, Gerald Barry. I was particularly taken with the two items that are sung in Gaelic. An Teitheadh go héigipt is a setting of a poem about the Flight into Egypt; it makes a good impression. Even more impressive is Suantraí ár Slánaitheora. This is a traditional Scottish lullaby in an Irish translation. This gentle, soothing piece is very skilfully arranged and it receives an outstanding performance. This is a highlight of the programme.

The New World is well represented in the programme. Henry Cowell was one of twentieth century music’s great radicals but you really wouldn’t know that from listening to Sweet was the song the Virgin sung, which is innocent and surprisingly un-experimental. From an earlier age comes Winter by Daniel Read and also If angels sung a Savior's birth by Stevenson, both in effective arrangements by Hillier. In fact, Stephenson was English but this piece was published in the fledgling USA, so it certainly qualifies as one of the New World settings. It’s nice, also, to hear Away in a manger sung to its slightly less familiar American tune, which I prefer.

We come back to the Old World for the most substantial item in the collection: the double-choir motet Merk auf, mein Herz. The music was discovered as recently as 1989 and has been attributed to Johann Christoph Bach, the Cantor of Eisenach, though Paul Hillier is doubtful this attribution is correct. In truth it matters little; what is of more significance is that it’s a very fine piece. The music is, in essence, a series of seven variations on Vom Himmel hoch and it is, in Hillier’s words, ‘splendidly inventive’. It’s marvellously sung here.

In fact, everything on this disc is expertly done, whether it be the plainchant Great ‘O’ antiphons which appear throughout the programme, Bach’s festive piece or the more familiar items of Christmas fare in new guises. The sixteen singers of Chamber Choir Ireland (4/4/4/4) are immaculately drilled and offer highly disciplined and very engaging singing. I enjoyed their performances greatly.

Paul Hillier’s notes are good though the documentation is a little sloppy. The name of Joseph Stephenson is spelt in two different ways – I’ve opted to follow the rendition in Hillier’s notes – and no dates are supplied for any of the composers, though the information is not difficult to access on line. That however, is a minor quibble. This is an excellent Christmas anthology, expertly performed and thoughtfully assembled.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Antiphon I: O Sapientia plainchant,
O come, all ye faithful arr. Paul HILLIER (b. 1949) [PH],
Remember, O thou man [PH],
Antiphon II: O Adonai plainchant,
Adam lay ibounden [PH],
Gaudete! Christus est natus [PH],
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Sweet was the song the Virgin sung*,
Antiphon III: O Radix Jesse plainchant,
Gerald BARRY (b. 1952)
Heissa, Buama [PH],
Antiphon IV: O Clavis David plainchant ,
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)
Merk auf, mein Herz*
Antiphon V: O Oriens plainchant,
Joseph STEPHENSON (?1723-1810)
If angels sung a Savior's birth [PH]
Daniel READ (1757-1836)
Winter [PH],
Antiphon VI: O Rex Gentium plainchant,
Gesù bambin l'è nato [PH]
Away in a manger [PH],
Eamonn Ó GALLCOBHAIR (1900-1982)
An Teitheadh go héigipt,
traditional, arr. Fiontán Ó CEARBHAILL (1922-1981)
Suantraí ár Slánaitheora,
Antiphon VII: O Emmanuel plainchant
Behold a silly tender babe [PH],
Arbeau/Woodward [PH]
Ding Dong Merrily on High