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Advent Calendar - A collection of contemporary Christmas carols
ORA/Suzi Digby
Joby Burgess (percussion)
rec. 2017, St Augustine’s Church Kilburn, London
Pdf booklet includes texts
Available as a download only
HARMONIA MUNDI [approx. 83 mins]

I’ve greatly enjoyed the previous recordings by Suzi Digby and ORA (review ~ review ~ review). It’s been a hallmark of their albums to date that each programme has juxtaposed pieces of Renaissance polyphony with contemporary works, many of them commissioned by ORA. This Christmas album is rather different, however, in that the entire programme consists of contemporary pieces, including two – by John Rutter and Debbie Wiseman – commissioned specially for this project. The 24 individual tracks have been unveiled during December on a daily basis in the form of an Advent calendar on ORA’s website. Now the whole collection has been released in digital format to coincide with the unveiling of Debbie Wiseman’s new carol on Christmas Eve 2017.

I should say that I have not heard the Wiseman offering at the time of writing this review. I have been provided with a press preview copy of the album in CD format and I presume that there wasn’t room on the disc, which stretches to nearly 79 minutes, for the final carol. Similarly, I can’t comment on the downloads per se though I’m advised by Harmonia Mundi that the album will be available in a variety of formats, from HD 24/96 down to normal MP3 depending on the provider from which it is downloaded and depending on which format the purchaser chooses. I can say, however, that heard as a CD the recording, engineered by Mike Hatch and produced by Nick Parker, is excellent. The booklet is very good; it contains all the texts and interesting notes by Jeremy Summerly. In addition, both John Rutter and Debbie Wiseman have provided short notes about their respective pieces.

All the carols are for a cappella voices with the exception of the two new pieces, both of which employ percussion. I understand that Debbie Wiseman’s The Christmas Tree has an important part for timpani. John Rutter uses a marimba and crotales to excellent effect – the moment when he requires the percussionist to switch from the marimba to the crotales is telling. His Suzi’s Carol is a setting of the medieval text ‘A babe is born all of a may’. I’m familiar with the urgent setting of these words by William Mathias so Rutter’s more contemplative approach is an interestingly different slant.

I understand from the notes that the Wiseman carol is an energetic composition and there are other such settings in this collection. Adrian Peacock’s Venite, Gaudete! uses pent-up energy and insistent rhythmic writing very successfully. Steven Sametz’s Gaudete! is full of verve, the rhythms strongly sprung, while Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo is light on its feet and joyful. Most of the selected pieces, though, tend towards the serene and gentle end of the spectrum, and that’s fine with me. I like a jolly carol as much as the next man but reflective carols tick even more boxes for me.

The Pärt piece is one of a handful in this collection that are well known. The Shepherd’s Carol is one of Bob Chilcott’s very best Christmas pieces and it’s given a super performance here. Holst’s In the bleak midwinter is a cornerstone of the Christmas repertoire but I’ve always preferred Harold Darke’s setting because though Holst’s tune is lovely each of the verses is set in the same way so the piece can seem repetitive. Ola Gjeilo’s thoughtful and attractive arrangement solves the repetition problem. The traditional tune for Les anges dans nos campagnes turns out to be the one that English readers will know as Angels from the realms of glory. That, I’m afraid, is one of my least favourite Christmas hymns. However, Tobias Frank’s slow and pure treatment of the melody in his skilful arrangement made me see the tune in a new light and I like Frank’s arrangement very much. We all know Franz Grüber’s Silent Night but here we encounter it in a different form. Fredrik Sixten not only re-harmonises Grüber’s tune – and most effectively – but he also adds a soprano solo, singing a lovely counter-melody. The result is most attractive, not least because Emma Walshe is such a fine soloist – she features also in the Holst/Gjeilo piece. ORA also offer us Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, which has become very well established in the repertoire. The present performance is suitably luminous. Mind you, for all its quality the Whitacre piece still has some way to go before it overtakes Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium in the public consciousness. This rapt piece may be in danger of becoming ubiquitous but when one hears a performance of this stature one admires the piece all the more. ORA’s perfect performance of this modern Christmas classic is superbly controlled.

The other pieces may be new to many collectors; a lot of them were unfamiliar to me. I love the beautiful harmonies deployed by Sally Beamish in her In the stillness. I was equally taken with the setting of Lullay, my Liking by Thomas Hewitt Jones. This is music of sophisticated innocence and the setting flows marvellously, each verse being treated differently. James Burton’s Balulalow is beguiling and gentle while Gareth Treseder’s Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day benefits not only from a winning melody but also from inventive and interesting part writing. The gentle intensity of Will Todd’s My Lord has Come is beautifully conveyed by Suzi Digby and her singers.

Jonathan Rathbone contributes a gently mellifluous setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen. This effective music is closely harmonised. I like, too, Owain Park’s Shepherds’ Cradle Song. This has a very pleasing flow and the part writing is excellent.

It may be unfair to single out one piece in such a super programme but if I had to pick just one item as my Big Discovery from all the music here then my choice would be James Bassi’s Quem pastores laudavere. This is simply exquisite. It benefits from a lovely melody which Bassi treats delectably. ORA’s glowing performance displays superb dynamic control. I don’t expect to hear anything lovelier this Christmas.

This is a wonderful Christmas album; it’s one of the finest I’ve heard for many years. Suzi Digby describes the programme as “our selection from the many fabulous carols that are being written in this great age for choral music.” I completely agree with her that this is a time at which much excellent music is being written for choirs. Her selection for this programme is discerning; there isn’t a single dud here. The level of performance is consistently marvellous. I’ve enjoyed this programme from start to finish, not least on account of the discoveries I’ve made. This collection from ORA will be at the top of my playlist not only for Christmas 2017 but for many Christmases to come.

John Quinn

John Rutter Suzi’s Carol*
Adrian Peacock Venite, Gaudete!
Jim Clements Gabriel’s Message
Sally Beamish In the stillness
Howard Skempton Adam lay y-bounden
Thomas Hewitt Jones Lullay, my Liking
James Burton Balulalow
Trad. arr. Richard Allain Coventry Carol
Morten Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium
Gareth Treseder Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day
Will Todd My Lord has Come
James Bassi Quem pastores laudavere
Steven Sametz Gaudete!
Judith Weir My Guardian Angel
Owain Park Shepherds’ Cradle Song
Bob Chilcott The Shepherd’s Carol
Jonathan Rathbone The Oxen
Cecilia McDowall Now May We Singen
Eric Whitacre Lux Aurumque
Arvo Pärt Bogoróditse Djévo
Trad. arr. Tobias A. Frank Les anges dans nos campagnes
Holst arr. Ola Gjeilo In the bleak midwinter
Fredrik Sixten Mary’s Lullaby (Silent Night)
Debbie Wiseman The Christmas Tree*
*Work commissioned by ORA and world-premiere recording



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