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December Celebration
Mark ADAMO (b 1962)
The Christmas Life [3:12]
Jake HEGGIE (b 1961)
On the Road to Christmas for soprano and string orchestra [15:25]
Joan MORRIS (b 1943) and William BOLCOM (b 1938)
Carol (Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide) [1:46]
David GARNER (b 1954)
Three Carols [14:23]
Luna Pearl WOOLF (b 1973)
How Bright the Darkness [7:11]
Gordon GETTY (b 1933)
Four Christmas Carols [8:18]
John CORIGLIANO (b 1938)
Christmas at the Cloisters
Franz GRUBER (1787-1863), arr. Gordon GETTY Silent Night [3:42]
Lisa Delan (soprano); Lester Lynch (baritone); Volti Chorus; Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra/Dawn Harms
rec. December 2014, Skywalker Sound, San Rafael, California, USA
Texts included
PENTATONE PTC5186537 SACD [57:06]

We learn from the booklet that Gordon Getty’s set of four new carols was the inspiration behind an invitation to seven other American composers to supply new seasonal pieces for this disc. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing that we do learn from the booklet. Although the full texts are supplied there is no information whatsoever about either the composers or the new pieces that they have written. That’s a pity. A few names, such as John Corigliano or Jake Heggie, may well be familiar, but several of the composers – Mark Adamo, David Garner and Luna Pearl Woolf - are completely new to me, as they may be to others. So too are all the performers. A note in the booklet invites us to visit the Pentatone website “to learn more about the music and the artists” but I was unable to locate any further information there.

What of the music? Well, Mark Adamo’s short piece for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra sets a poem by Wendy Cope. It’s a nice piece, though I didn’t find it especially cheerful in tone.

Jake Heggie’s On the Road to Christmas is in six sections. I was interested to see that in the second section he sets a poem, The Car Ride to Christmas, by one Frederica von Stade. I presume this is the celebrated mezzo. Other movements include an arrangement of I Wonder as I Wander, settings of lines by A.E. Housman and by Emily Dickinson and a movement that entertainingly brings together Good King Wenceslas and Ding, dong merrily on high. The last movement, Christmas Time of Year is a warm setting of words by the composer himself. I rather suspect that this is Heggie’s tribute to the great American Christmas ‘standards’; that’s certainly what it sounds like. On the Road to Christmas is a pleasing piece. The trouble with this recording lies in the contribution of the soloist, Lisa Delan. She’s described as a soprano though her voice has definite mezzo tints and a strong “bottom”. The issue, for me, is her excessive vibrato which leads to a significant loss of clarity. Indeed, even when following the texts in the booklet I found that her words were very indistinct. Furthermore, I really didn’t care for the sound of her voice very much. I’m afraid her singing gave me little pleasure, though others may respond more favourably. She’s also balanced rather oddly against the strings, I think; it sounded as if she was positioned behind them, which may account in part for her indistinct singing.

Miss Delan is also involved in David Garner’s Three Carols, which are for soprano, baritone, oboe, frame drum and strings. Garner sets three texts by Thomas Breidenthal which run together as a kind of nativity sequence. The second and most substantial movement is entitled O magnum mysterium but don’t expect anything similar to the rapt settings of, say, Poulenc or Lauridsen. Prompted by Breidenthal’s text, Garner has composed a robust piece, strongly suggestive of the dance. It’s a bit on the long side – nine verses plus an occasional refrain – but it’s novel and bracing. In Garner’s work we also hear baritone Lester Lynch. He has a firm, strong voice. Perhaps at times in the last of the three movements, Jesus’ Song, his style is a bit too forthright but overall he sings well.

We also hear him in John Corigliano’s Christmas at the Cloisters. This is a strange piece for baritone and Hammond organ. The baritone part is very declamatory and the accompaniment sounds very odd. I’ve admired this composer’s music in the past but this piece didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid; I thought it was rather hard going for the Festive Season.

The Volti Chorus sings Gordon Getty’s Four Carols well. These are scored for female voices and chamber orchestra. The music is accessible and attractive. Getty’s decision to score it for female voices and a delicate accompaniment brings rewards in that the carols sound fresh, light and airy. The idiom is probably the most conservative in the collection but Getty’s settings are also the most appealing and that’s important at Christmas. His arrangement of Silent Night for SATB choir and chamber orchestra is inoffensive though I wonder if the orchestration is just a bit on the sweet side for this simple carol.

I like the energetic, compound-time setting of a text after Wind in the Willows by Joan Morris and William Bolcom. However, Luna Pearl Woolf’s How Bright the Darkness for baritone, treble chorus, harp, percussion and string orchestra struck me as being rather too earnest.

This is a worthy enterprise but I’m not fully convinced. In the past I’ve welcomed a good deal of new Christmas music in the course of reviews on MusicWeb International, including a number of challenging pieces. However, I’m afraid that there’s not a great deal here that made a positive impression on me. Apart from my reservations about the soprano soloist the performances are good.

John Quinn



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