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Holy boy PFCD170
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The Holy Boy: Christmastide in Albion
Timothy Dickinson (bass-baritone)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 9 May 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, UK

The artists name manifold inspiration for this disc. There were several songs that they had “hurriedly gathered together [as] repertoire for a Christmas concert in December 2020, after months of cancelled and postponed performances”. They then realised that there was a greater corpus of British composers’ “solo” Christmas songs than imagined. It had been done before. John Carol Case’s Sing Solo Christmas (1987) contains quite a few of the numbers included here. And there was the LP Christmas with Forbes Robinson, released in 1973 on the Musical Heritage Label (MHS1963). All these threads result in an interesting and satisfying programme. I will give a few notes on what for me are highlights.

Arnold Bax’s rarely heard Five Fantasies on Polish Christmas Carols are welcome. Timothy Dickinson only records three, but there is room here for the other two. The work was commissioned for the benefit of Polish Children and the Polish Red Cross by Captain Jan Sliwinski (who collected them and translated the texts into English). They were devised for juvenile voices. Despite Bax’s lack of enthusiasm for the task, they are successful – at least in this performance.

The pieces I did not realise existed in solo voice versions include Corpus Christi Carol from Britten’s A Boy Was Born, and The Oxen from Vaughan Williams’s Hodie. It seems obvious, because both are solos in their original settings. They deserve to be better known.

Peter Warlock’s five Christmas songs are the main constituent of this recital. They have been recorded before, and some exist in choral arrangements. My favourite is, and always has been, The Frostbound Wood set to the words by Bruce Blunt. But all work well as solo songs.

New for me were Michael Head’s The Carol of the Field Mice and Malcolm Williamson’s A Christmas Carol. The former is a setting of a text from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I have known the poem for nearly sixty years, but never knew it had been set. Williamson chose a poem by Mary Wilson, the wife of Labour Prime Minister, Harold. It is a rich and opulent song.

I enjoyed the three “seasonal” piano pieces. Holst’s vibrant Chrissemas Day in the Morning should be better known, as should Balfour Gardiner’s exploration of the carol tune Good King Wenceslas in his delightful Noel. Percy Grainger’s plangent The Sussex Mummers Christmas Carol is also welcome.

The final number is John Ireland’s The Holy Boy, originally written for piano solo and issued as the third of his Preludes for piano, dating between 1913 and 1915. It was subtitled A Carol of the Nativity. In 1938, Ireland’s solicitor Herbert S. Brown wrote a poem Lowly, laid in a manger/With oxen brooding nigh… In setting it, Ireland slightly revised the piano part.

Why do record companies sometimes spoil their productions with substandard booklets or liner notes? No composer dates are given here – easy to look up, but still essential. (Even the internet could not fathom Mark Hankey’s natal day.) No texts either. Yes, this may have been to do with copyright matters, but even so they would be helpful. The timings on the rear cover do not always tally with reality; just consider three Warlock songs listed as 2:08 but actually 2:09, 2:08 and 3:19. Dates are a wee bit problematic too: composed, arranged, and published are sometimes variable. For example, the Corpus Christie Carol was extracted by Britten and published in 1961. But his A Boy was Born was a pre-war work completed in 1932-1933 and revised in 1955. Such context is important. Finally, there is no commentary on, or discussion of, each piece, just a few arbitrary thoughts.

I would suggest listening to this disc in short sections. Like many albums of songs, there is always a danger of everything beginning to merge. I wish that a few more piano solos had been included – making up a quarter of the whole?

This is a pleasant seasonal disc. The singer’s smooth and amiable voice, and Duncan Honeybourne’s sympathetic accompaniment, give this recording a good feel. The repertoire is well balanced, though with a leaning towards the reflective theology of the season rather than the celebratory. In that perspective, it is a remarkable success.

John France

Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
The Little Road to Bethlehem (1946) [2:47]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Carol of The Skiddaw Yowes (1920) [2:15]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Monkey's Carol (1921) [3:27]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Chrissemas Day in the Morning for piano (1926) [2:36]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The Bayly Berith the Bell Awa`y (1919) [2:29]
Bethlehem Down (1927/1931) [4:37]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
From Five Fantasies on Polish Christmas Carols (1945)
God is Born [3:43]
Lullay, Dear Jesus [3:54]
Merrily to Bethlehem [1:52]
O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies (Variations on a North Country Christmas Carol) for piano (1945) [3:41]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Oxen (from Hodie) (1954) [4:03]
Balulalow (1919?/1923?) [2:09]
Tyrley, Tyrlow (1922) [2:08]
The Frostbound Wood (1929) [3:19]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Corpus Christi Carol (from A Boy Was Born) (1932-1933, rev.1955/1961) [3:18]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
The Sussex Mummers Christmas Carol [arranged for piano] (1911) [2:23]
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
A Christmas Carol (1965) [2:54]
Mark HANKEY (?)
Lucy's Carol (1968) [2:44]
Michael HEAD
The Carol of the Field Mice (1971) [4:04]
Henry Balfour GARDINER (1877-1950)
Noel for piano (1908) [2:27]
Norman FULTON (1909-1980)
Make We Merry Op 37 No 2 (1973) [1:23]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy (1938, publ. 1941) [3:14]

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