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Christmas a Cappella
Musica Sacra/Indra Hughes
rec. 11-12 May and 9 June 2001, St Michael’s Church, Remuera, NZ. DDD
Texts and translations included
ATOLL ACD501 [65:36]

Christmas a Cappella II
Musica Sacra/Indra Hughes
rec. 10 June 2005, 22-23 June and 20 July 2007, St Michael’s Church, Remuera, NZ. DDD
Texts and translations included
Full track listings at end of review
ATOLL ACD207 [61:43]

Most of the Christmas recordings which I have reviewed this year, as in other years, fall into one of two categories – mostly or wholly traditional and mostly or wholly unfamiliar. These two sets of performances by Musica Sacra directed by Indra Hughes, recorded in Auckland, NZ, in 2001 and 2007 respectively and never, to the best of my knowledge released in the UK before, contain a goodly mix of the two categories. The first – a well justified best-seller in New Zealand, I understand – leans towards the familiar and the second towards the unfamiliar.

The danger, as Paul Corfield Godfrey wrote of another Atoll Christmas release with these forces in 2012 – review – is that such mixed recitals fall in that uncomfortable place between two stools but I’m happy largely to absolve these two programmes of that.

I’m also pleased to see that Atoll have employed altogether more suitable covers than the exploding volcano on ACD342 and have included a little more information in the booklets concerning the music, the dates of the composers (Volume II only) and sometimes those of the actual compositions. It would be nit-picking to complain that we are told of the tune of Ding dong! Merrily on high that it’s ‘traditional’ on the back cover and ‘16th-century French melody’ in the booklet without mentioning that it was first published by Thoinot Arbeau (alias Jehan Tabourot) in his collection of French court dances entitled Orchésographie (1588).

I must, however, pick a few nits concerning the typo (?) which gives Palestrina’s date of birth as 1514 – it’s actually c.1525. In some cases, especially for New Zealand composers whom I can’t find online, I’ve had to take the given dates on trust. On the other hand there’s an interesting explanation of how the term a cappella, now used to describe unaccompanied singing, came about: the reliquary where St Martin’s cloak (Late Latin cappa, diminutive cappella) was preserved was the first place to be known as a cappella or chapel and the term a cappella was employed to describe the music sung there. An explanation, I should add, with a ‘perhaps’ best added. Some of the singing is not strictly a cappella since Katharine Hedley is credited as the (unobtrusive) cellist in some of the items on CD1.

As for the performances, imagine the English cathedral tradition slightly modified to avoid any hint of the over-precise diction that some dislike about it, bearing in mind that one person’s precision is another’s over-precision. Indra Hughes first trained at the cathedral in my home town of Blackburn – and he includes an arrangement of Ding dong! Merrily on high by Jack Longstaff who was for many years Head of Music at my own old school, Queen Elizabeth’s in that town, though after my time – and later at my other alma mater Oxford, so the echoes of the cathedral tradition in these performances are easily explained.

I enjoyed hearing these CDs – nothing to do, I should add, with the incidental connections with my own connection with the two places in question. More to the point, all concerned cope very well with the wide variety of material on offer, from the traditional via the renaissance and baroque to the comparatively modern, my pick of which would be John Scott’s Nova! Nova! which opens CD2.

The opening David Willcocks arrangement of Samuel Scheidt’s Ein Kind gebor’n in Bethlehem (in translation) on CD1 stands comparison with the best – with King’s Cambridge, even (EMI 5150862, 2 CDs, budget price) or the Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh (DG Archiv 4392502, download only but a wonderful recording of a reconstructed Lutheran Christmas Mass) and sets the tone for a fine pair of programmes.

Similarly the two pieces by Victoria (CD1, trs. 8 and 9) receive the kind of performance you might expect from a specialist renaissance group. There’s very little to choose between their singing of O magnum mysterium and that of Westminster Cathedral directed by David Hill on a Hyperion CD of Victoria’s music (CDA66190, with the Masses O magnum mysterium and Ascendens Christus in altumDownload Roundup November 2011/1). The Westminster choristers give the music marginally extra time to breathe and make it soar a little more and their performance leads into fine performances of the two Masses, but I also enjoyed the Musica Sacra performance.

The Hyperion recording is also marginally cleaner than Atoll’s but, again, that’s only apparent in a direct comparison. That apart, the Atoll recording is good. Similarly, the notes and presentation of the booklet are excelled by the Hyperion, but that’s also to judge by comparison with the masters of presentation.

If the repertoire appeals, either or both of these CDs would be well worth considering for your Christmas listening. If you would like to sample before deciding whether to purchase, Volume I is available for streaming from the Naxos Music Library.

Brian Wilson

Track listing:

Christmas a Cappella:
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1623) ed. Sir David Willcocks A Child is born in Bethlehem (1620) [2:45]
Traditional Adeste Fideles [3:33]
Pię Cantiones (1582) arr. G.R. Woodward Up! Good Christian Folk [1:32]
Traditional, arr. Sir David Willcocks The Cherry Tree [2:02]
Traditional, arr. Sir David Willcocks Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day [2:12]
Traditional Once in Royal David’s City [4:47]
17th-century Italian, arr. Charles Wood Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary! [2:06]
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (c.1548-1611) Ave Maria [5:37]
O Magnum Mysterium [4:38]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Blessed Son of God [2:54]
Christopher MARSHALL (b.1956) Bless this Child [4:50]
John WELLS (b.1948) The Shepherd’s Carol [2:45]
Traditional, arr. Martin Shaw Rejoice and be Merry [1:18]
Traditional arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams O Little Town of Bethlehem [3:25]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976) arr. Indra Hughes Star Candles [3:21]
Michael HEAD The little Road to Bethlehem [3:31
Traditional, arr. Jack Longstaff Ding Dong! Merrily on High [2:02]
Traditional German, arr. John Rutter Quem pastores laudavere [2:07]
Traditional Away in a Manger [3:37]
Basque Carol, arr. Sir David Willcocks The Infant King [4:01]
Traditional Hark! The Herald Angels Sing [3:00]

Christmas a Cappella II:
John SCOTT (b.1956) Nova! Nova! [1:55]
Michael PRĘTORIUS (1571-1621) Omnis Mundus jocundetur [0:55]
Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming [2:12]
Irish Carol, arr. John Rutter Wexford Carol [4:56]
Este’s Psalms (1592) While Shepherds watched their Flocks [2:20]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1988) Hymne ą la Vierge [3:33]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Alma Redemptoris Mater [2:49]
Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900) Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn [3:38]
Edgar PETTMAN (1863-1943) (Traditional Basque) The Angel Gabriel [2:22]
Eric WHITACRE (b.1970) Lux Aurumque [3:04]
David GRIFFITHS (b.1950) Annunciation* [3:55]
Konrad KOCHER (1786-1872) As with Gladness Men of Old [2:56]
Franz GRUBER (1787-1863) arr. Terence Maskell Po Marie/Silent Night [2:36]
John BRADLEY (?) The Christ-child lay on Mary’s Lap (1973) [2:36]
Traditional Welsh, arr. Sir David Willcocks Deck the Hall [1:14]
Traditional English, arr. Sir Arthur Sullivan and Indra Hughes It Came upon the Midnight clear [3:08]
Jacob HANDL (1550-1591) Omnes de Saba [1:33]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) arr. Sir Ivor Atkins The three Kings [3:05]
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838) O God, Who by the Leading of a Star [3:48]
Traditional, arr. Charles Wood Ding, Dong! Merrily on high [1:48]
W.J. KIRKPATRICK (1838-1923) arr. Sir David Willcocks Away in a Manger [2:47]
Michael PRĘTORIUS (1571-1921) In Dulci Jubilo [3:25]
* commissioned by Musica Sacra. First recording.