Album Review

Posted: Friday 9th November 2007
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Noël Nouvelet – MusicWeb International

The Vasari Singers have a substantial number of recordings to their credit so I was a little surprised to learn that this is their first Christmas disc. Their conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, directs them in a stimulating programme, which combines some familiar carols, albeit some of them in new guises, and an enticing number of newer Christmas compositions.

The first thing to say about this recital is that not only is the singing consistently superb but also the attention to detail is tremendous. I wouldn’t normally follow Christmas carols in a score but several of the pieces, including those by Judith Weir, Morten Lauridsen and Andrew Carter, are contained in the enterprising collection of carols entitled Noël! (ed. David Hill, Novello, 2000). Out of interest I followed the music of those pieces as I listened. Although Jeremy Backhouse introduces one or two interpretative ideas of his own, all the detailed markings included by the composers are fully respected. That may sound like a very obvious point but it shows the care that has gone into this production. Backhouse and his singers certainly haven’t approached this assignment as “just a disc of carols” and it makes a world of difference.

The listener will be struck from the very outset by the fresh, joyful singing in the Mendelssohn item, which makes an excellent curtain-raiser here. The performance of Michael Head’s lovely Christmas song is distinguished by some extremely pure singing on the part of the Vasari’s sopranos. I prefer this little gem in its choral dress rather than as a solo song.

Moving further into the programme, I greatly enjoyed the performance of Rutter’s Mary’s Lullaby. Some people turn their noses up at Rutter’s Christmas music but I’m not among them. At its best it’s melodious and communicative and Mary’s Lullaby is one of his best. It’s sung quite beautifully here. But it was a very shrewd piece of programme building to follow it with the Kenneth Leighton piece, which reflects the more serious side of the Incarnation and the events surrounding it in music that’s astringent, though not excessively so. Fiona McWilliams contributes a marvellous soprano solo in the Leighton.

Jonathan Rathbone’s Corpus Christi Carol also reflects the darker side of the human condition – I’m not sure the text is truly a Christmas one, but no matter. This is a fine setting that seems to involve a semi-chorus placed remotely, as in Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin. The music flows but is quite intense, as befits the subject matter. I was also impressed with another, very different setting, Naji Hakim’s exuberant and harmonically extravagant version of Ding dong! Merrily on high (2001). Most of the pieces on this disc require an expert choir to bring them off, but none more so than this Hakim piece.

More familiar is Morten Lauridsen’s rapt O magnum mysterium. This luminous piece is well on the way to becoming a modern Christmas classic. The music looks relatively simple on the printed page, especially as it’s quite slow moving, but don’t be deceived: it requires the utmost control from the choir. There’s a wonderful clarity of texture about this superb Vasari performance but this is not attained at the price of the sense of mystery, which this piece should always create. The choir is just as successful in the spare, angular harmonies and demanding rhythms of Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem. This is given a thrillingly alert and clear performance.

A few of the settings require organ accompaniment and what a luxury it is to have a virtuoso of the calibre of Jeremy Filsell on hand. He comes into his own particularly in Stephen Jackson’s inventive setting of Noël Nouvelet. In fact, it’s no disrespect to any choir undertaking this piece to say that a great deal of the interest lies in the organ part. The writing for organ is no mere pastiche but, appropriately, sounds very French indeed. Filsell makes a telling contribution to this rich, sophisticated arrangement. He’s also involved, though a little less critically, in John Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The music is marked “fresh and lively” and that’s exactly how it’s done here. In fact, I can’t ever recall hearing it taken so briskly but, with crisp articulation from the choir, the chosen tempo works brilliantly. This truly exuberant performance makes other accounts that I’ve heard sound cautious and my only regret is that Jeremy Backhouse, like many other conductors, eschews Gardner’s optional percussion parts.

Two standards are heard in new arrangements. Jonathan Rathbone’s version of Silent Night is correctly described by Jeremy Backhouse as “sumptuous”. It stays on just the right side of the sweetness line and I enjoyed it very much. The hushed last verse, in dense harmonies, is particularly effective and is underpinned by some lovely, very low notes in the bass part. Equally successful is Nigel Short’s take on Away in a manger. As Backhouse says, it is “lush”, but I think it also captures the essential tenderness of this modest, well-loved little carol.

To conclude the proceedings we’re offered three sweetmeats. I’m afraid I’ve never had a sufficiently sweet tooth to enable me to enjoy Sir Malcolm Sargent’s carol arrangements. For me they’re very much of their time and that time passed a good few years ago. However, the Vasari’s gorgeous rendition of Hawaiian Lullaby almost persuaded me. I needed no persuasion, however, to lap up Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Mel Tormé’s enduring secular standard, Christmas Song. Swingle is the choir’s patron and Jeremy Backhouse writes of this arrangement that Swingle “released [it] from his private archive for us alone.” Well, if by some chance Ward Swingle should ever read this review can I urge him that this warm, stylish and, in a nice sense, sentimental arrangement is far too good to remain unpublished, especially when sung as well as it is here.

The last word is with Andrew Carter and his arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Written as long ago as 1971, though revised two years later, this is, incredibly, its first recording. As the days unfold nothing untoward seems to be happening until we get to the sixth day of Christmas, which is where the mischief begins. I won’t spoil the surprises for those who’ve not heard the arrangement before. Suffice to say, Carter throws umpteen musical jokes into the mix and the whole thing is tremendous fun. Needing a very skilled choir to bring it off, I suggest that it receives here possibly the best performance it can ever have had.

This is one of the finest and most enjoyable Christmas discs to come my way in a very long time, combining some quite stretching musical fare with some fun items. Offhand, I can’t think of a better disc of Christmas music for you to find under your tree on December 25th.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International