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Christmas with Sonoro
Michael Higgins (organ)
Sonoro/Neil Ferris
rec. 2018, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Texts included

Earlier this year I was very impressed by the debut CD from Sonoro (review) so when I saw they’d done a Christmas disc I was keen to hear it. Such are the scheduling demands of getting a seasonal disc released on time that Christmas repertoire often has to be recorded at the most unlikely times of the year. Such was the case on this occasion. The session photos in the booklet show the artists decked in shorts and other summer attire. From memory, when this disc was recorded, in July 2018, the UK was sweltering in a heat wave: it must have been a challenge to feel Christmassy in such temperatures.

Sonoro’s programme nicely mixes the festive and the reflective; it also mixes the familiar and the less well-known. Into the familiar category come such items as Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, here sung most sensitively, John Joubert’s lovely There is no rose – such a contrast to his robust and highly popular Torches! - and Howells’ A spotless rose, which is now firmly established as a Christmas classic. The present performance of the Howells is mellifluous and there’s an excellent baritone solo from Richard Bannan.

Among less familiar items – to me, at least – is a piece by one of Howells’ pupils, Paul Spicer. In fact, In a field as I lay was written, we are told, during Spicer’s student years at the Royal College of Music so I wonder if the piece benefitted from advice by Howells. The setting is beautifully harmonised and I’m very glad to have heard it. Perhaps Cecilia McDowall’s setting of the Advent antiphon O Oriens will be unfamiliar to some collectors. I’ve heard it before, not least in its premiere recording by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, for whom it was commissioned (review). It’s a wonderful setting in which the harmonies seem like light shining through a dark winter night. Sonoro’s account of it is ideally balanced and controlled.

Two of the composers have in common that they were pupils of Sir Lennox Berkeley. Sally Beamish’s music is well known to me and I’m sure I’ve heard her deceptively simple but hugely effective In the stillness before. Neil Ferris, in his notes, is right to call it “a gem of a piece”. I’m sorry to say, though, that I don’t think I’ve encountered Betty Roe’s music before. Don’t worry; her The Holly and the Ivy isn’t yet another arrangement of that rather done-to-death carol. She’s taken a different anonymous 15th century text and fashioned a lovely setting for unaccompanied choir. This is a very welcome discovery. So too is Suantraí ár Slánaitheora. This is a setting of a traditional Scottish carol by the Irish composer, Fintan O'Carroll. This disarming lullaby features a lovely soprano solo, here expressively sung by the pure-voiced Rebecca Lea.

Michael Higgins is Sonoro’s co-Artistic Director with Neil Ferris. As well as playing the organ for several items he has contributed a number of arrangements. It must be hard to think of anything original to do with The angel Gabriel but Higgins has managed it with sophisticated textures contributing to an imaginative arrangement. His take on Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is pleasing. He also provides what his colleague, Neil Ferris describes as a “deferential” arrangement of Silent night. I enjoyed this very much: the performance by Sonoro is perfectly poised.

This is a highly enjoyable and nicely varied Christmas programme. The singing of Sonoro is expert: they achieve a fine balance and make a sound which is clear and consistently pleasing. They’ve been most successfully recorded by Adam Binks. Although I’m writing this review in October, Sonoro have put me nicely, if prematurely, into the Christmas spirit.

John Quinn

Malcolm Archer (b 1952) A little child there is born
Cecilia McDowall (b 1951) O Oriens
Paul Spicer (b 1952) In a field as I lay
Michael Higgins (b 1981) The angel Gabriel
John Joubert (b 1927) There is no rose
Gareth Treseder (b 1985) Blessed be that Maid Marie
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) A spotless rose
Becky McGlade (b 1974) In the bleak midwinter
Michael Higgins Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
Betty Roe (b 1930) The Holly and the Ivy
Sally Beamish (b 1956) In the stillness
Fintan O'Carroll (1922-1981) Suantraí ár Slánaitheora
Michael Higgins Coventry Carol
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down
John Rutter (b 1945) Wexford Carol
Will Todd (b 1970) My Lord has Come
Michael Higgins Silent night
Stuart Nicholson (b 1975) Ding dong! merrily on high



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