A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
Neuer Knabenchor Hamburg, Jens Bauditz (conductor)
Rufus Beck (reader)
rec. February-April 2016, St Gertrud-Kirche, Hamburg (carols), Isarklang, Munich (readings)
RONDEAU ROP6125 [66:41]

From the title to the contents, this is very much a homage to the annual service from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Jens Bauditz underlines the Cambridge inspiration in his booklet notes, and there is even a booklet photograph of the King’s College chapel. The Cambridge connection ends there, though, for not in a hundred years would one ever confuse this recording with those emanating from King’s.

For a start, there are the readings. Recorded separately from the singing (and in a wholly different acoustic) and drawn from non-Biblical sources as diverse as Francis Church, James Krüss, Kurt Tucholsky, Wilhelm Busch, Frances Browne and Agatha Christie, they are all delivered in German by the same rather gentle male voice.

Then there are the carol arrangements themselves. No soaring Willcocks descants (although Willcocks’s version of ‘Away in a Manger’ appears in a disturbingly bouncy performance – were they confusing this with “rock-a-bye baby”?), no contrived Cleobury harmonies, no smoochy Rutter accompaniments. Everything is straight, direct, conventional and unaccompanied. One or two would make unusual, but by no means inconceivable, additions to the King’s service; a breathlessly syncopated extract from Kurt Nystedt’s Missa Brevis and the only German-language item from the choir, Meeres Stille which the Neuer Knabenchor Hamburg commissioned themselves especially for this recording from Gloria Bruni. And at least one – Leontovych’s annoyingly repetitive Carol of the Bells – we would hope never to hear from King’s. A very coarse gallop through Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium is the only thing here which makes for genuinely uncomfortable listening.

But the most obvious difference is the singing of the Neuer Knabenchor Hamburg. From the exceptionally athletic romp through Once in Royal David’s City it is clear that we are a million miles away from the traditions of an English choral Christmas. Some unidiomatic pronunciation occasionally intrudes, although the choir’s English diction is generally excellent, and a raw tenor and bass tone does nothing to soften the very brittle boys’ sound. There was a time when we might have described this as “continental” tone, but so integrated has this style of singing become in English Cathedral choir stalls that to hear it from genuinely continental voices does come as a bit of a shock.

By no means an unwelcome shock, however, and there are some pieces here where the singing has more brightness, agility and simple liveliness than King’s. I am particularly attracted to the lovely swing they give to In dulci jubilo, even if it does go a bit off the rails later on, while Bauditz gives Adam Lay Y-bounden such a rhythmic kick that it takes on an altogether different character. The perky account of Ding! Dong! Merrily on High and a gloriously vivid version of Riu, riu, chiu make this CD, for all its strangeness (to English ears), a refreshing addition to the Christmas scene.
Marc Rochester

Arthur Henry Mann (1850-1929): Once in Royal David’s City [1:51]
William Byrd (1543-1623): O Magnum Mysterium [2:20]
Boris Ord (1897-1961): Adam Lay Y-bounden [1:12]
Charles Wood (1866-1926): Ding! Dong! Merrily on High [1:44]
Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921): Carol of the Bells [1:30]
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621): A Great and Mighty Wonder [3:04]
Franz Xaver Grüber (1787-1863): Silent Night [2:23]
Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1856): In dulci jubilo [3:26]
Kurt Nystedt 91915-2014): Missa Brevis – Gloria [1:38]
Richard Runciman Terry (1865-1938): The First Nowell [2:44]
arr. Jens Bauditz (b.1981): God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen [1:42]
William James Kirkpatrick (1838-1921): Away in a Manger [1:45]
Gloria Bruni (b.1955): Meeres Stille [4:34]
Spanish 16th century: Riu, riu, chiu [1:29]
William Henry Monk (1823-1889): As with Gladness Men of Old [1:15]
John Francis Wade (1711-1786): O Come all ye Faithful [2:30]
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847): Hark! The Herald Angels Sing [1:48]

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