Album Review

Posted: Tuesday 9th October 2007
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Noël Nouvelet –

Christmas comes early for the Vasari Singers with this varied disc of seasonal carols.

The chamber choir has performed to acclaim over Christmas since the 1980s, as the brief but informative programme note explains; the group has a “long-held aspiration to dress up the traditional in new clothes” and to introduce new and possibly diverse works into the (for me) staid festive repertoire.

Hence this disc, as well as housing five world premiere CD recordings, boasts a fine collection of arrangements and unusual interpretations of familiar numbers. The Coventry Carol in its original form (dating from the sixteenth century, with anonymous composer) stands among my favourite carols, but here the Vasari Singers present the yet more haunting arrangement by Kenneth Leighton, with its soaring yet elegant soprano solo rising from the choral textures.

The performance here is beautifully rendered: Fiona McWilliams’ solo is balanced on a knife-edge, and it is this quality that makes her delivery so affecting. Her cries of By, by in the second stanza are poignantly fragile, and she will soon be helplessly brushed aside by the men’s thunderous shout of Herod the king/In his raging (a wonderful moment to perform for the tenors and basses).

Ding dong! Merrily on high is likewise presented in an arrangement, specifically a bouncy, bluesy interpretation from Naji Hakim, though this track perhaps showcases one of the flaws of the disc. Though the exuberance of the performances is never in question (this exuberance is an admirable quality of the choir that I remember from when I saw them live last year, performing Will Todd’s Mass in Blue), various technical concerns threaten to distract from the greater picture.

The intonation here and at various points on the CD is occasionally suspect (though the sopranos make a more than fair stab at the cruel top note at Ding dong!’s conclusion), some vocal entries are imperfect and sometimes I sense that a reliance on the sprightly rhythm draws attention from the text’s meaning. Given consistently excellent performances, however, are the premieres. The disconcerting harmonic progressions of Jonathan Rathbone’s Corpus Christi Carol make for involving listening, though the work’s wide dynamic contrasts would undoubtedly be more effective live, in an immediate acoustic.

The whole is conducted thoughtfully by Jeremy Backhouse, while Jeremy Filsell accompanies clearly and responsibly on the organ. John Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day benefits greatly from Filsell’s rhythmically incisive organ scaffolding. If the whole is let down by some intonation imprecisions and consequent ensemble uncertainties, the choir’s professionalism and gratifying warmth of expression make this a very worthwhile purchase.

Dave Paxton