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An Ely Christmas
The Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Ely Cathedral/Sarah MacDonald
Aaron Shilson (organ)
rec. 2018, Ely Cathedral, UK
REGENT REGCD527 [71:30]

Happy, smiling, children’s faces at Christmas, and some delightful carol singing; what more could we ask for? That’s what we have here, and in some ways, there is nothing more to be said. Mums, Dads, Grannies, Granddads, Sisters, Brothers, Aunts, Uncles; all will be happy and proud to get a copy of this at Christmas. And that, we might assume, is the real point of the disc; a feel-good presentation for family and friends at this magical time of the year. But as the disc is out in the market for all to hear, and offers something a little different from much of the usual Christmas fayre, I make no excuse for saying rather a lot more about it, even at the risk of throwing a critical spotlight on something which might usually seem beyond the call for cool, calm and collected critical commentary (I like lots of Cs at Christmas!).

There is something charming, almost childlike, about the sound of these 16 young girls, who we see giggling around their director in the selfie which adorns the back of the booklet. But when it gets down to the singing, they are as professional and disciplined as any other group of British cathedral choristers. Indeed, the sound they produce has a clarity of articulation and diction, a precision of pitch and ensemble, and a level of technical security which is beyond reproach. This is excellent singing and from the outstanding blend of voices as well as the delicious purity of sound, it is clear that, for all the smiles in the selfie, Sarah MacDonald is a hard, possibly even a ruthless taskmaster. Young singers do not reach this level of technical proficiency without the steely determination and ironclad rehearsing technique of a committed director.

While the sound may be all sweetness and light, flawlessly manicured and polished to an almost dazzling shine, it does rather quickly pall on the ears. This choir makes a distinctive sound but one which has a superficial effect, with variety of tone and real depth of collective intuition in short supply. Possibly that is not a significant problem with a disc comprising 23 short individual pieces, the longest of which, by quite some distance, is Paul Maelor’s setting of A Spotless Rose (checking in at 5 minutes and 7 seconds). However, as if to acknowledge the potential for such same-ness of tone, MacDonald has chosen a programme of new carols and presented most of the more traditional ones in arrangements which do not always serve the originals well.

Peter Warlock’s Come to Bethlehem, itself an arrangement of a movement from the Capriol Suite, suffers at the hands of Maurice Jacobson’s bloated two-part arrangement (and some may find the way the girls enunciate “new-born King” strangely pretentious), while Mark Armstrong’s version of Deck the Halls seems extravagant. There are two different versions of Away in a Manger. Gary Cole (yes, he of Regent Records fame) has included his own arrangement of William Kirkpatrick’s popular tune which is effective, but with its irritating modulation between verses and ever thickening texture, rather obscures the essential charm of this famous carol. On the other hand, Alexander Berry has taken the alternative traditional tune from Normandy and added a hooting descant as well as a flowing organ accompaniment, which is eloquently delivered with consummate taste (as are all the organ accompaniments here) by Aaron Shilson. Sarah MacDonald’s own arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy begins magically with a superb choral imitations of bells, but the persistent shifting up by a semitone at the end has all the delicacy of a formula one car on the starting grid.

John Rutter’s What Sweeter Music, Edmund Rubbra’s The Cherry Tree Carol and John Joubert’s There is no Rose obviously stand out as classics in the field of modern Christmas carols, while others here certainly deserve the wider airing this recording offers. Paul Edwards’s gentle No Small Wonder gets the balance just right between tight harmonies and spacious effect, and while it may be the longest thing on the disc, the men and girls of Ely Cathedral throw their all at Paul Mealor’s carol and produce a wonderfully luminous performance of it. The rhythmically incisive Glorificamus Deum by Annabel Rooney is effective, Bernard Trafford’s Sir Christèmas sounds a little derivative but works nicely here, but the horribly cliché-ridden Follow that Star by Peter Gritton is one of those things choirs find fun, but should never, ever, be allowed out in public at Christmas or at any other time of the year.

Simon Lole’s setting of Love Came Down at Christmas with its references to that magical Welsh lullaby Suo-Gan, seems too contrived to be really effective, while glittering organ passagework and energetic choral singing are not enough to transform Ben Parry’s Three Angels into anything more than just another attempt to add glitter and sparkle to the Christmas music scene.

Several of the unaccompanied carols suffer from a Sarah MacDonald’s insistence on keeping all the various vocal parts at an equal dynamic level. Most obviously we lose the textural intricacies of Richard Peat’s Corpus Christi Carol with its rather obvious nods in the direction of Benjamin Britten. But full praise here to Amelia Merrick and Eleanor Scott for their enchanting solo lines. And on the subject of solo voices, while no less than 14 of the girls are at various times projected as soloists, and all of them in their individual way, add greatly to the charm of the disc, perhaps Indea Cranner is the most impressive with her soaring line, and beautifully placed top register in Matthew Larkin’s highly atmospheric Adam lay ybounden. Here’s a voice we should be hearing a lot more of in the future.

Marc Rochester
Welsh trade, arr Mark Armstrong - Deck the hall [1:52]
Paul Edwards - No small wonder [2:54]
Adolphe Adam, arr Sarah MacDonald - O holy night [4:31]
John Joubert - There is no rose [2:35]
Peter Warlock, arr Maurice Jacobson - Come to Bethlehem [2:33]
Normandy trad, arr Alexander Berry - Away in a manger [3:06]
Annabel Rooney - Glorificamus Deum [2:06]
Richard Peat - Corpus Christi Carol [4:21]
English trad, arr Sarah MacDonald - The cherry tree carol [3:17]
Edmund Rubbra - A Hymn to the Virgin [2:34]
Bernard Trafford - Sir Christèmas [3:07]
Paul Mealor - A Spotless Rose [5:07]
Simon Lole - Love came down at Christmas [2:49]
Peter Grifton - Follow that star [2:08]
Matthew Larkin - Adam lay ybounden [2:59]
John Rutter - What sweeter music [4:18]
Gary Higginson - St Godric’s Hymn [2:07]
Charles Wood, arr Harrison Oxley - Mater ora filium [3:06]
Philip Stopford - A Christmas Blessing [3:02]
English trad, arr Sarah MacDonald - The holly and the ivy [3:41]
William J Kirkpatrick, arr Gary Cole - Away in a manger [ 2:48]
Will Todd - My Lord has come [4:02]
Ben Parry -Three angels [2:27]


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