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Candlelight Carols: Music for Chorus and Harp
see end fo review for track listing
Jacqueline Kerrod (harp)
Seraphic Fire/Patrick Dupré Quigley
rec. 3-5 December 2013, Bower Chapel, Moorings Park, Naples, Florida, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eclassical.com
Pdf booklet not included
SERAPHIC FIRE MEDIA SFMCD14
[49:48]

The Florida-based chamber choir Seraphic Fire are new to me, yet I see they have done remarkably well for an ensemble that's only just entering its second decade. Led by their distinguished founder and conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley they have made a number of recordings to date; their repertoire is eclectic, ranging from Tallis to Ticheli, and the quality of their work has earned them Grammy Award nominations. Indeed, my colleague Dominy Clements felt their Monteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine and Magnificat a 6 – also with the Western Michigan University Chorale - compared favourably with some of the better versions in the catalogue (review).

With Christmas in the offing I was looking for a carol album that offered something a little different. This mix of old and new, arranged for choir and harp, seemed to fit the bill. However, only after I’d downloaded the files from eclassical.com did I realise there were no liner-notes. In a Scrooge-like moment I posted a cross Tweet and within the hour Seraphic Fire’s Ross Chuchla had emailed me a pdf version of their attractively designed booklet. When will labels realise it's no longer acceptable – if indeed it ever was – to market their downloads without appropriate documentation? CD buyers wouldn’t accept it, so why should those of us who opt for downloads instead?

This collection begins with Jacqueline Kerrod’s lovely rendition of Bugeilio'r gwenith gwyn (Watching the wheat) by the Welsh composer, teacher and Royal harpist John Thomas. The harp’s rich susurrations and the chapel’s clear acoustic are beautifully caught, as are the antiphonal voices in John Rutter’s What sweeter music. The simple, rhyming quatrains are nicely sung, although there are moments where the vocal blend could have been a little tidier. No such qualms about the a cappella piece O magnum mysterium, from Poulenc’s 4 Motets pour le temps de Noël, which emerges with austere loveliness and pin-sharp articulation.

This is a chamber choir after all, so don’t expect a big, sonorous sound. There’s a certain roughness, a rustic ardour perhaps, to Holst’s setting of In the bleak midwinter that’s entirely apt; it’s framed by harp playing of quiet simplicity and strength. Conductor Quigley’s arrangement of Angels we have heard on high is a sliver of pure delight, and the choir’s cascading repetitions of Gloria in excelsis Deo are keenly felt and sung. The three movements from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, a work penned on his voyage to the US in 1942, has rather more sinew; its choral parts are met with characteristically pointed ripostes from Kerrod in Deo Gracias. The rocking harp figures of There is no rose have a gnarled quality that contrasts nicely with the gentler Balulalow and the highly animated rendition of This little babe. I do prefer this work with boy trebles, though.

Reflecting on what we’ve heard thus far it’s clear this isn’t the warm, cosy concert that one might assume from the album title. There are few soft edges here, no rush of festive sugar, and that's really rather refreshing. Even Jake Runestad’s Sleep little baby, sleep – originally for SATB and piano – has bright, ringing peaks that one wouldn’t normally associate with a lullaby. At least it has a quiet, reposeful ending. Norman Luboff, who led the well-known Norman Luboff Choir, is responsible for a lovely arrangement of the Austrian carol Still, still, still; it has a serene charm, the darker choral sound laced with pin-pricks of light from the harp. This is a little gem, and it deserves to be better known.

O nata lux, from that doyen of American choral composers Morten Lauridsen, has a pleasing plainness that some might construe as a lack of substance. I must confess I don’t warm to his music, but hearing his O magnum mysterium sung by a truly stellar choir makes all the difference (review). His indefatigable British counterpart John Rutter’s arrangement of the lilting Quittez, pasteurs (Come, leave your sheep) is enlivened by a keen sense of rhythm, while Susan LaBarr’s arangement of the Huron Carol, Canada's oldest, celebrates the nativity in music of marvellous solemnity and grace. It’s one of the most affecting pieces here.

The alliterative Patapan, from Kirke Mechem’s Seven joys of Christmas, is charged with bright-eyed wonder; and, at last, Rutter’s Candlelight Carol brings the gentle warmth and good cheer heralded in the album title. Indeed, those reassuring cadences – Kerrod is as melting as ever – glow with rare contentment. It’s the perfect end to a most engaging programme, whose content and execution certainly lived up to my hopes of ‘something a little different’. If you’re after more robust and traditional Christmas music look elsewhere.

Any caveats? Very few. Details about the works and composers would have been useful, and the recording is prone to sharpness in the treble. It’s certainly not a cosseting acoustic. Some may find the selection a tad unvaried, but when it's this well presented that hardly seems to matter.

Lean festive fare that’s not without nourishment; fine performances and decent sound.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Track listing
John THOMAS (1826-1913)
Watching the wheat [4:10]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
What sweeter music (1987) [4:28]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
4 Motets pour le temps de Noël (1951)
No. 1, O magnum mysterium [3:36]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
In the bleak midwinter (by 1906) [2:52]
Trad. arr. Patrick Dupré QUIGLEY
Angels we have heard on high [2:18]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942) [6:56]
Deo Gracias [1:16]
There is no rose [1:30]
Balulalow [2:42]
This little babe [1:28]
Jake RUNESTAD (b. 1986)
Sleep, little baby, sleep (2012) [4:23]
Austrian carol, arr. Norman LUBOFF (1917-1987)
Still, still, still [3:25]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
Lux aeterna: O nata lux (1997) [4:06]
French carol, arr. John RUTTER
Quittez pasteurs [2:27]
Canadian carol (1642) arr. Susan LABARR (b. 1981)
Huron Carol (2012) [5:06]
Kirke MECHEM (b. 1925)
Seven joys of Christmas (1964)
The joy of children: Patapan [1:32]
John RUTTER
Candlelight Carol (1984) [4:29]