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My First Christmas Album
No recording locations or dates given
NAXOS 8.578340 [75:46]

Naxos' "My First Christmas Album" repeats a formula the company have used in some eight or so previous releases. The Naxos back-catalogue is trawled to create a diverse programme brought together under the title; "My First..." piano/lullaby/ballet/Beethoven album and so on. From the design and written content of the rather attractive liner my guess - I'm no early years expert! - is that this is aimed at the 5-10 years bracket. Full track listings are tucked away at the back of the liner including composer names and dates and the source disc for each performance. but in the booklet proper the name of the carol or piece is given with the composer and a couple of sentences about the piece. There is also a 'keyword' - for instance for "Once in Royal David's City" the keyword is "Solo", for the Corelli "Christmas Concerto" it is "violins". Each page also includes two or three attactively naive colourful drawings. Clearly, the disc is designed to stimulate interaction between an adult and child.

It would be very easy for a disc like this to be at best formulaic and at worst trite. Actually, I have to say I really enjoyed listening to it. The focus is very much on a 'traditional' Christian-orientated celebration. Nearly half of the programme is made up what could be called core English-language carols. The extra interest is the addition of carols from Finland, Spain, Poland, Holland and Ukraine. The programme is completed by a couple of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, a Messiah Chorus and single movement of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto as well as a wonderfully robust Medieval carol and an instrumental piece by Charpentier. The secular side of the season is more briefly represented with a very fun Sleighride to Thredbo by the Australian born John Carmichael and a pair of spectacularly cheesy arrangements by 'Anon' and Richard Heyman of Winter Wonderland and Rudolf the red-nosed Reindeer respectively. Peter Breiner contributes an orchestral version of Jingle Bells which is better in the light music stakes. Heyman is a legendary arranger so perhaps he was having an off-day. They so jar with the rest of the programme - "Rudolf" segues straight into a very traditionally simple and touching performance of Away in a manger from Worcester Cathedral - that I did wonder if the programme planner was having a private joke. The music selection and notes were written by Genevieve Helsby and I have to say I think she has done a tremendous job. Apart from the musical hand-brake-turns that I have just mentioned this is a really good programme of really good performances.

I have always been a great believer in the importance of presenting music of the highest possible quality regardless of the potential audience. This is done here - for the adult listener there is real interest and fascination in hearing such a wide range of choral styles. The previously mentioned Donald Hunt/Worcester Cathedral choir provide 4 carols - in classic English cathedral style; possibly slightly prim but beautifully pure and balanced - nicely recorded too. Andrew Sackett's Tewkesbury Abbey Choir contribute another four but in a more modern, more directly expressive less blended sound. The secular adult choir The Elora Singers sound quite different again in their three carols - they make a more 'concert' sound - but also impressive. Anthony Pitts' Tonus Peregrinus are typical of the high quality college vocal group that has come from Oxford or Cambridge.

Comparing the two children's choirs - the New London and the Finchley Music Group is equally fascinating and rewarding, both are wonderfully vivacious and energetic although making quite a different sound. Going abroad, the Swedish Örebro Kammerchor contribute the Spanish Esta Bella Noche with an attractive guitar and percussion accompaniment. I loved the predictably fine Lutoslawski/ Antoni Wit Polish National RSO & Choir Hurrying to Bethlehem. Again quite a different choral tone. Otto Kotilainen's Finnish Kun Joulu on is something of a discovery beautifully performed - a lighter tone than the Polish choir but very expressive by the Finnish choir Chorus Resonus. Another virtuoso vocal group prove to be La Petite Bande de Montreal who contribute a brief but virtuosic Carol of the Bells. Jeremy Summerly's Oxford Camerata are suitably vigorous in the Medieval Gaudete Christus est natus. As indeed is For Unto us from the Messiah from Edward Higginbottom, the Academy of Ancient Music and Oxford New College Choir. This is a delightfully sprung and sprightly version of an old favourite. Most of the carols are sung with little or no accompaniment other than the expected organ or keyboard. This makes the full orchestral version of Vaughan Williams' Wassail Song particularly enjoyable.

Another lively performance, this time from The Bournemouth SO under Hilary Davan Wetton - this is the version RVW arranged as part of his Folksongs of the Four Seasons which is relatively rare, so another enjoyable surprise. The Nutcracker excerpts are competently played and taken from a relatively old recording from Michael Halasz and the Slovak PO. The players of the Capella Istropolitana are drawn from that orchestra I seem to recall and I have always enjoyed their energetic and well-played versions of the Corelli Concerti Grosso which includes the famous Christmas Concerto. The instrumental Noel by Charpentier enters a quite different sound-world well played again by the Arcadia Ensemble.

So all in all a disc of palpable hits in terms of music and performance - the cheese-board aside and certainly something for the stocking of a young relative. No texts or translations are included. Well done to Naxos for producing a disc of great entertainment value but without compromising the artistic merit of it either. And with a playing time of some 75 minutes it’s a generously filled disc too. What's not to like - pass the port, I might even try the cheese again.

Nick Barnard

Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-1876)
Once in Royal David's City1 [3:19]
John CARMICHEAL (b.1930)
Sleighride to Thredbo2 [1:50]
John Henry HOPKINS Jnr (1820-1891)
We Three3 (arr. Anthony Pitts) [3:07]
Trad arr. John RUTTER
Sans day carol4 [3:19]
Felix BERNARD (1897-1944)
Winter Wonderland5 [2:14]
Trad arr. Henry WALFORD DAVIES
The Holly and the Ivy4 [3:19]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah - For Unto us a boy is born6 [3:51]
Luis Eduardo GALLIAN
Esta bella noche7 [3:16]
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.8 in G minor "Christmas" - 2nd movement Allegro8 [2:02]
King Jesus hath a garden9 [2:26]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols - The little Babe10 [1:26]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976)
In the bleak midwinter9 [4:54]
Trad arr. Reginald JACQUES
Good King Wenceslas4 [3:05]
James Lord PIERPOINT (1822-1893) arr. Peter BREINER
Jingle Bells11 [1:00]
Carol of the Bells12 [1:30]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy13 [1:48]
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day14 [3:31]
Gaudete Christus est natus15 [1:38]
Johnny MARKS (1909-1985) arr. Richard HAYMAN
Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer5 [2:37]
D William J KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. Donald HUNT
Away in a manger1 [3:11]
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Hurrying to Bethlehem16 [0:51]
Otto KOTILAINEN (1868-1936)
Kun Joulu on (At Christmas time)17 [2:16]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863)
Silent Night9 [3:05]
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Noël, Vous qui désirez sans fin18 [2:23]
Trad. arr. Andrew CARTER
A maiden most gentle4 [2:53]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folksongs of the Four Seasons - Wassail Song19 [2:26]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - Russian Dance (Trepak)13 [1:08]
Unto us is born a Son1 (arr. David Willcocks) [1:54]
Ding dong merrily on high9 (arr. David Willcocks) [2:07]
Rocking1 [1:45]

Worcester Cathedral Choir/Donald Hunt, Raymond Johnson (organ)1
BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth2
Tonus Peregrinus/Anthony Pitts3
Tewkesbury Abbey Choir/Andrew Sackett4
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra5
Academy of Ancient Music, Oxford New College Choir/Edward Higginbottom6
Orebo Kammarkor/Fred Sjober7
Capella Istropolitana/Jaroslav Krcek8
Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison9
New London Children's Choir/Ronald Corp, Skaila Kanga (harp) 9
Slovak State SO Kosice/Alfred Walter11
La Petite Bande de Montreal/Martin Dagenais12
Slovak PO/Michael Halasz13
Finchley Children's Music Group/Grace Rossiter, John Evanson14
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy15
Polish National RSO, Polish Radio Chorus Kracow/Antoni Wit16
Chorus Resonus/Sauli Hannuksela17
Arcadia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon18
Bournemouth SO, City of London Choir Hilary/Davan Wetton19



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