fri 12/07/2024

Classical CDs: Christmas 2023 | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs: Christmas 2023

Classical CDs: Christmas 2023

Twelve of the year's best seasonal recordings

Concert Clemens Arthus sing a rarity by Hugo DistlerLia Vittone


Winter BreviaryWinter Breviary St Martin’s Voices/Andrew Earis (Resonus)

The music at the St Martin-in-the-Fields in London has been reinvigorated in the last couple of years by new Director of Music, Andrew Earis, and St Martin’s Voices, the resident chamber choir of young professional singers, has been at the heart of that. Their Christmas offering is a selection of premiere recordings by predominantly women composers, a debut collaboration with the Resonus label: I hope there will be more. Olivia Sparkhall’s “All and Some” has a springy medieval feel, all drone textures and modal melodies, and is a splendid opener. Cecilia McDowall’s “There is no rose” is poised and icy. Reena Esmail’s triptych A Winter Breviary gives the disc its title, and intriguingly blends Christian services with Indian ragas. Sarah MacDonald’s The Manger is Empty is expertly scored and texturally varied, perhaps my highlight of the disc. Lucy Walker’s The Christmas Life is a singable and appealing set and Yshani Perinpanayagam’s “When Good made Eve” is almost operatic in dramatising her own text. This fascinating collection is probably my Christmas record of this year. Bernard Hughes

Hugo DistlerHugo Distler: Die Weihnachtsgeschichte Concert Clemens, Aarhus/Carsten Seyer-Hansen (OUR Recordings)

What a wonderful and completely affecting piece. Written in 1933, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (the nativity story) for a capella choir and four soloists performing six roles by Hugo Distler (1908-1942), gets a lot of performances in the Germanic world: it has gone through 21 reprints since Bärenreiter first published it in 1975. Distler’s life story was tragic. To keep going, to keep working, to keep writing church music and to remain inventive under the Nazis was a circle which it was impossible for him to square. He dealt with the impossible pressure for nearly a decade, but ended up taking his own life on All Saints Day in 1942 at the age of just 34. The resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself would be incarcerated six months later, wrote a beautiful condolence letter to Distler’s widow saying it was impossible to know Distler’s work and to hear of his death without everything one knows being changed forever.

The unifying thread in Distler’s forty-minute work is a series of seven beautifully wrought chorale variations on the hymn “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen”. The remarkable thing about this new recording from Denmark is how expressive and yet how relatively unsentimental it can be. The choir Concert Clemens from Aarhus give us Distler’s chromaticism in a particularly candid and unadorned way, asserting the balance of the parts, rather than allowing the listener to wallow in the top line. Even the best of the German recordings (by the Artesinus Ensemble from 2015) has a tendency to sugar-coat.

Distler is always rhythmically inventive too. He has taken the model of the Passions for unaccompanied choir by Heinrich Schütz, works he clearly knew in very great depth, and for Die Weihnachtsgeschichte has viewed them through a twentieth-century prism. This fine new version from Denmark is good, but it also opens up the tantalising prospect of more to come, of what a top-flight UK professional choir might one day make of this feast of invention and choral delight. Sebastian Scotney

Dave Brubeck ChristmasA Dave Brubeck Christmas (Telarc/Craft)

Christmas Piano with Alexis Ffrench (Sony)

The first of these releases is a reissue, but a desirable one. Dave Brubeck’s solo piano Christmas album was recorded and first released back in 1996, and this reappearance on Craft’s revived Telarc imprint is a 45rpm double LP set. It wears its years lightly; stating that Brubeck’s arrangements are tasteful and unshowy isn’t damning with faint praise. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” are delicious, Brubeck sounding like Fats Waller. “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are both based on the settings by James R Murray and Lewis Redner most often sung in the US, and there’s a couple of numbers composed by Brubeck. “Run, Run, Run to Bethlehem” is an earworm, its mood flipping between celebratory and pensive. The album is bookended by two versions of “Jingle Bells”, the wistful second one a highlight, and Brubeck finishes with a dash of Mel Tormé. Surfaces are commendably silent and the recorded sound has ample oomph. Brubeck’s sleeve note is a sweet read, revealing that one of his sons used to refer to “Away in a Manger” as “Cribfer”. Think about it…

Alexis FFrench ChristmasPianist and producer Alexis Ffrench’s notes are similarly homely, his album containing 24 seasonal numbers. As with the Brubeck, there’s a smattering of self-penned miniatures amongst an eclectic selection of favourites. We get Ffrench’s disarmingly sweet take on “Fairytale of New York”, plus “Mary’s Boy Child” and even “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, the original’s rough edges smoothed over. Ffrench’s own pieces are consistently effective, models of elegance and restraint – do sample “Christmas Tree” or “Together at Last”. Pared-down versions of “Silent Night”, “O Christmas Tree” and “O Tannenbaum” are effective, and Ffrench’s supple, colourful playing is a constant. What’s perhaps missing is a palpable fun factor: you can sense the septuagenarian Brubeck grinning as he rattles through his faster numbers, while Ffrench is more strait-laced. 

Noel ArmonicoNoël Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks (Signum)

Christopher Monks’s Armonico Consort recreate one of their live carol concerts, finding the perfect balance of old and new beautifully sequenced and appealingly sung. There are runouts for old warhorses like “O little town of Bethlehem”, here with a brilliant descant by Richard Marlow. “In the bleak midwinter” is the Harold Darke version (not my preferred one, but I know I am in the minority among the cognoscenti when it comes to that) and the French “Away in a Manger”, which is definitely a good choice. There is some lovely older music – Jean Mouton’s “Nesciens Mater”, deliciously followed by John Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol”. But the best bits have to be two premiere recordings of Toby Young: his “O Adonai” opens the disc with some lovely astringent counterpoint atop a rich harmonic bed and his “The Astronomer’s Carol” is as catchy as Rutter, with a spectacular organ accompaniment. Bernard Hughes

Bob Chilcott XmasBob Chilcott: Christmas Oratorio Choir of Merton College, Cambridge/Benjamin Nicholas (Delphian)

Bob Chilcott’s Christmas Oratorio – a bold title, pitching high – was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in 2019, and this recording reunites the soloists from that occasion (Nick Pritchard, Sarah Connolly and Neal Davies) with the choir of Merton College, Oxford under Benjamin Nicholas. It is structured a bit like a Bach passion, with an Evangelist (Pritchard, in earnest storyteller mode) getting through the narrative, amid solo meditations and hymns for the choir. Not to disparage the fine singing of the big names, but the hymns were for me the big success: “Shepherds in the field abiding” and “Thou whose almighty word” are glorious, singable numbers with soaring descants. I also welcomed the opening track, a setting of “Jesus Christ the apple tree” for upper voices, which will hopefully eclipse the inexplicably popular Elizabeth Poston version, whose appearance can mar any carol concert. Bernard Hughes

Hawes NativityPatrick Hawes: The Nativity Voce/Mark Singleton (Signum)

Patrick Hawes is a British composer (he actually styles himself as an “English composer who has made his mark as a torchbearer of the English musical traditions”) and formerly Composer in Residence of ClassicFM. This Christmas album is recorded by the American choir Voce, conducted by Mark Singleton. It is a selection of short pieces, between 2 and 4 minutes, mellifluous and singable, if a little anodyne. Several are to words by his brother, Andrew Hawes, including the sequence The Nativity. The other grouping of pieces is the Four Christmas Motets, which have a real energy and urgency. Of the rest – all sung well by Voce – I enjoyed “Lullay my liking”, its bare intervals and counterpoint a nod to older musical styles. Bernard Hughes

Nova NovaNova! Nova! Joy to the World! Hertfordshire Chorus/David Temple, with Rufus Frowde (organ) (Signum)

Here’s a generous selection of traditional carols, very well-sung by a good amateur chorus. All are in appealing arrangements by the veteran composer and arranger Louis Halsey (b.1929). He’s still active, these settings published in a 2021 anthology. Halsey plays things commendably straight,with even the more complex a capella numbers feeling incredibly singable. If I lived in Herfordshire, I’d be knocking on David Temple’s door asking to join this choir. It’s good to hear “Stille Nacht” in the original German, Temple’s singers marvellous in the richly harmonised second and third verses. "Noël Nouvelet", beautifully sung, was new to me, and it’s good to hear “Il est né, le divin Enfant" and “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?" delivered in idiomatic-sounding French. “Hajej, nynej, Ježíšku” is another highlight, better-known here as the “Rocking Carol”. Halsey’s “Coventry Carol” is delectable and “Here we come a-wassailing” swings. A lovely collection – my one slight gripe being the slightly distant balance, meaning that the more extrovert numbers lack impact. Full texts are provided, and the cover art is appealing.

Phoenix choraleThe Christmas Album Phoenix Chorale/Christopher Gabbitas (Signum)

Phoenix Chorale’s collection scores by including some enticing rarities which reflect the Arizona city’s Hispanic influence. Goff Richards’ arrangements of “El Niño Querido” and “Claro Abril Resplandeció” are sublime, and the closing number is a Spanish version of Gruber’s “Silent Night”. I like the way that this disc is sequenced, the more serious items followed by some intoxicating seasonal fluff. We get the premiere recording of British composer Cecilia McDowall’s impressive Trinity Triptych, commissioned by these forces, the angular lines of the final “O Virgo Virginium” delivered with confidence. Brian Kay’s take on “Gaudete” bounces along, and there’s an ingenious version of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”. The frothier items showcase this group’s skill, as with “Winter Wonderland” (with a hint of bossa nova) and “Jingle Bells”. Try singing along and you'll marvel at how Phoenix Chorale make both sound easy. Production values are impressive, with superb recorded sound and more funky sleeve art.

tewkesbury abbeySweet was the Song: Christmas music from Tewkesbury Abbey (Regent Records)

Sweet was the Song from the Schola Cantorum of Tewkesbury Abbey has seven premiere recordings from its 19 tracks, of which 19 nine were commissioned for the choir. The album are accompanied by Carleton Etherington (a name to relish) on the organ – and George Baker’s dazzling Toccata-Gigue on the Sussex Carol is a spectacular finale. There is much to enjoy before you get there, both in the choral passages and in some lovely solos (not very clearly identified). Among enjoyable additions to the Christmas catalogue from Owain Park, Kerensa Briggs and Ben Ponniah, perhaps the standout is Grayston Ives exuberant “Susanni”. Bernard Hughes

no small wonderNo Small Wonder St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys/Jeremy Filsell (Acis)

No Small Wonder takes us to the bustle of New York, where the choir of men and boys at St Thomas Fifth Avenue offers respite from the commercialism all around, in the form of a Christmas programme that combines British and American music. The Anglican musical tradition is alive and well in the heart of Manhatten, as witness Stanford’s solidly Victorian “A Song of Wisdom” or David Willcocks’ “O Come, all ye Faithful”. But there is also Adrian Peacock’s modern classic “Veni, Gaudete!” – sung with proper urgency – and at the other end of the mood spectrum, Francis Pott’s expansive “In the bleak midwinter”. Some of the words get lost in the acoustic, but the sound is warm. Bernard Hughes

voces8 xmasA Choral Christmas Voces8 Foundation Choir and Orchestra/Barnaby Smith (Decca)

Voces8 dive wholeheartedly into a world of Christmas Gemütlichkeit: gloriously and unashamedly cheesy orchestral versions of Christmas standards like “Silent Night” and “Away in a manger”. The “Joy to the World” that kicks things of (in Taylor Scott Davis’s arrangement) is camp and fabulous, as is “O come, all ye faithful”, which proudly inserts the passing note in “adore him” that fastidious choral directors spend their Christmases trying to stop people doing. The centrepiece is Davis’s Magnificat, bringing a bit of a change of pace and tone, especially in the chilly, filmic “Et misericordia”. The always outstanding Voces8 are joined by their Foundation Choir and Orchestra, under the steady stewardship of Barnaby Smith. Bernard Hughes

To keep writing church music and to remain inventive under the Nazis was a circle which it was impossible for Distler to square

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