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Sing Thee Nowell
New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams (counter-tenor); Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor); Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone); Craig Phillips (bass))
rec. March 2014, Chapel at the American Boychoir School, Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Texts and English translations included
Full track listing at the end of this review
BIS BIS2099 SACD [71:17]

Back in 2007 I enjoyed very much an earlier Christmas disc by the vocal quartet, New York Polyphony (review) and in 2013 another disc of theirs came my way (review). Though two members of the original group had been replaced by 2013 the composition of the group has not changed since then.

The programme is intelligently planned and includes a few sub-groups of pieces. Thus, for instance, the third and fourth tracks concern the Angel Gabriel’s role as a messenger. However, the pieces concerned are about two different Annunciations. Gabriel's Message is the familiar Basque carol that tells of the Annunciation to Mary/. Here the carol appears in a close harmony arrangement by Alexander Craig; that’s the nom de plume of Craig Phillips, New York Polyphony’s bass. The piece by the Flemish composer, Verdelot tells of the Annunciation to Zechariah of the impending birth of John the Baptist. In this performance the polyphonic lines are beautifully balanced.

There follows a Marian group that includes no less than three settings of the medieval English text, There is no rose. In addition to a medieval version we hear two more up to date settings. Geoffrey Williams, the group’s counter-tenor, has taken the hymn tune ‘Hereford’. This is usually associated with a number of Anglican hymns, including ‘O Thou who camest from above’ but it suits Williams’s purpose very well. John Scott, formerly the master of the music at St Paul’s Cathedral, London and, since 2004 the holder of the similar post at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, composed his setting of the text for New York Polyphony. It’s an interesting and demanding piece, featuring very mobile harmonies.. The Marian group is completed by the spare early polyphony of the English composer, Byttering, who is known only by his surname, and a contemporary piece by Michael McGlynn. In terms of ambience the latter could almost pass for a medieval composition though the harmonic language is much more up to date.

It’s good to hear Richard Rodney Bennett’s Five Carols as a set. All are expertly crafted. I especially liked the touching, gentle Sweet was the Song while the dancing rhythms of Susanni are enunciated with the great precision that’s possible with a very small ensemble. The smooth close harmonies of There is no Rose register effectively. However, I did wonder if the more energetic contours of Out of your sleep were rather smoothed over. For these Bennett carols New York Polyphony are joined by two sopranos, Sarah Brailey and Elizabeth Baber Weaver. These ladies also take part in Warlock’s Bethlehem Down. The performance of this gem doesn’t have a hair out of place and I must say I prefer a slightly less calculated approach, especially to the cadences at the end of the verses.

I think therein lies the rub. I said of the Warlock performance that not a hair is out of place and, to be honest, that comment could apply to any of the tracks on this disc. The singing is supremely polished and, as I have in the past, I admired the musicianship and professionalism of this ensemble very much. However, I can imagine that some listeners may find it all just a bit too polished. I suppose it depends what you want from a vocal ensemble. I enjoyed these immaculate performances while I was listening to them but perhaps a more robust approach at times wouldn’t hurt.

John Quinn
 
Track-listing
 
Andrew SMITH (b. 1970) Veni Emmanuel
Geoffrey WILLIAMS (b. 1976) Adam lay ybounden
Philippe VERDELOT (fl 1485-1530) Gabriel Archangelus
Trad. Arr. Alexander CRAIG (b. 1971) Gabriel's Message
Trinity Roll MS (15th century) There is no rose
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY arr. Geoffrey WILLIAMS There is no rose (‘Hereford’)
John SCOTT (b. 1956) There is no rose
Thomas BYTTERING (d. 1420) Nesciens Mater
Michael Mcglynn (b. 1964) O pia Virgo
Seldon MS (15th century) Nowell, out of your sleep arise
Andrew SMITH Nowell: Arise and wake
Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) Five Carols: There is no rose; Out of your sleep; That Younge Child; Sweet was the Song; Susanni
Alexander CRAIG Sleep now
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) O magnum mysterium
Trad. Arr. Susan Labarr (b. 1982) Quem pastores laudavere
Richard PYGOTT (1485-1549) Quid petis, O fili?
Trad. Arr. Alexander CRAIG Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down
Jacob CLEMENS ‘NON PAPA’ (1500-1556) Magi veniunt ab Oriente
L D REDNER arr. Alexander CRAIG O Little Town of Bethlehem