A Christmas Celebration
Hallé, Hallé Youth & Hallé Children’s Choirs, Hallé Orchestra/Stephen Bell
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 21 December 2014 and Hallé St Peter, Manchester, 3-4 July 2014.
HALLE CDHLL7545 [76:04]

The children are heading back to school, the leaves look as if they are on the turn and the politicians are gathering for their annual conferences. Yes, the British summer is ending and, as the evenings draw in, so thoughts turn to Christmas. In this uncertain world it is good to know of one definite: the Christmas CDs will soon be pouring out of the warehouses, each with its own variant on the theme of dressing up the traditional to make it seem both new and familiar at the same time.

With its huge musical resources - the booklet lists well over 400 musicians spread over an orchestra and three choirs, as well as a bevy of assorted conductors, directors and accompanists – and its own record label, the Hallé is particularly well armed to take Christmas by storm. In its armoury are live recordings taken from the Hallé’s 2014 Christmas concert and studio ones made at its recording home in Manchester. The result is a pretty spectacular affair which goes for the big effect rather than for seasonal intimacy.

Its opening salvo is a blazing concoction of Christmas melodies wrapped up in lavish orchestrations (lots of bells, brass and full organ chords) and energetically played by the Hallé. The man responsible for the big organ chords in Nigel Hess’s Christmas Overture, Darius Battiwalla, has added his own touches to a Christmas classic – O Holy Night – expanding it two almost twice its usual length while at the same time making it a wonderful showcase for the massed voices of the combined Hallé Choirs.

Subtitled “A Festive Romp for Organ and Orchestra”, Roderick Elms wrote Noel in 2013 to celebrate Stephen Bell’s appointment as first Associate Conductor of the Hallé Pops, and with Elms taking the concertante organ part, this is a bright and cheerful medley of carol tunes which manages to avoid sounding overblown only because it is taken at such a sprightly pace and benefits from a crystal clear recorded sound. Nothing quite so obviously Christmassy about Somewhere in My Memory, but then given the obsession orchestras seem to have in programming anything by John Williams, the inclusion of this chunk of his score to Home Alone seems pretty inevitable. It certainly is a more worthy piece of music than the excessively imitative (of Williams) Fairytale Sleighride, although Stephen Bell milks Adam Saunders’ score for all it’s worth.

A blatantly obvious Christmas romp comes in the guise of the appropriately named A Christmas Carnival by Richard Bissill. The booklet notes suggest this is a “Richard Strauss-like festive tone-poem”; if so, obviously there’s another Richard Strauss out there, for this is a million miles away from anything the Bavarian one would ever have dreamed of writing even under the influence of an excess of Christmas Bockbier.

John Gardner’s setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day makes a refreshing change from the famous David Willcocks arrangement, especially with such crisp and incisive string playing as the Hallé produces here, but I’m not sure that Bell’s extravagant dynamic washes, clearly aimed at the live audience, work so well in the cold light of CD. The need to pander to the live audience also spoils Holst’s arrangement of Personent Hodie which comes across here more in the manner of a rustic clog dance. There is something relentless and unyielding about the fulsome account of Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple tree - if only Bell could have relaxed or even turned up the ends of phrases to give a feeling of shape to this intensely beautiful piece. Also missing out on beauty, Harold Darke’s famous setting of In the Bleak Mid-winter nevertheless possesses here a certain warmth of spirit despite some coordination issues in the third verse. There is, however, a lovely, beautifully measured and warmly expressive account of In dulci jubilo from the Hallé Choir as well as a deliciously gentle account of The Holy Boy from the Hallé strings.

A Christmas CD without John Rutter is like a sea without water, and this one has his Angels’ Carol in a particularly buoyant and unsentimental performance. And while we might realistically expect to hear Prokofiev’s Troika in this context, the Hallé comes up with something very different, a sturdy Waltz from the virtually unknown cantata Winter Bonfire. This is a truly rollicking performance which, like the account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers, is a moment of true orchestral glitter.

The closing items are more riotous than subtle. The children singers clearly love every moment of Christmas on the Beach at Waikiki, and the live audience lapped it up – their applause is generously allowed to live long on the CD - but, like the clapalong version of Sleigh Ride and the unabashed riotousness of We Wish You A Merry Christmas it would probably have been better to leave these to the memories of those who were there rather than preserve them in the aspic of a CD.

If this sets the scene for Christmas CDs 2016, then we are in for a boisterous time. Which, perhaps, is no bad thing given the trials and tribulations of the year that is so rapidly passing.

Marc Rochester

Nigel Hess (b.1953) : A Christmas Overture [7:27]
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856): O Holy Night [6:20]
John Gardner (1917-2011): Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day [1:55]
Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795-1856): In dulci jubilo [4:07]
Roderick Elms (b.1951): Noel [4:05]
John Williams (b.1932): Somewhere in My Memory [3:41]
Adam Saunders b.1968): Fairytale Sleighride [4;35]
John Rutter (b.1945): Angels’ Carol [3:17]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Winter Bonfire, Op.122 – Waltz [3:19]
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Personent Hodie [2:31]
John Ireland (1879-1962): The Holy Boy [3:01]
Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987): Jesus Christ the Apple Tree [3:08]
Richard Bissill (21st century): A Christmas Carnival [11:01]
Harold Darke (1888-1976): In the Bleak Mid-winter [4:53]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908): The Snow-Maiden – Dance of the Tumblers [4:03]
Marta Keen (b.1953): Christmas on the Beach at Waikiki [3:29]
Leroy Anderson (1908-1975): Sleigh Ride [3:09]
Arr. Arthur Warrell (1900-1975): We Wish You a Merry Christmas [2:01]

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