Album Review

Posted: Friday 7th December 2012
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A Winter’s Light – Europadisc

Since their foundation by conductor Jeremy Backhouse in 1980, the London-based Vasari Singers have achieved special renown for their wide-ranging repertoire, from Renaissance polyphony to new commissions, traditional and familiar favourites to more contemporary arrangements. It is a mixture that has proved especially successful in their annual Christmas carol concerts, and it does so again here, aided by the choir’s beautifully-poised singing and Backhouse’s sensitive direction.

Running like a thread through the first half of the disc are three movements from Bob Chilcott’s 2010 cycle On Christmas Night, each seamlessly but thoughtfully combining his own setting of a seasonal text with a traditional carol. One of the most popular of contemporary choral composers, Chilcott is further represented by his simple 1997 setting of Janet Lewis’s charming 1981 lullaby Christmas-tide.

At the other end of the chronological spectrum are two settings of the joyful Christmas vespers antiphonHodie Christus natus est, by Giovanni Gabrieli (1597) and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1619), both buoyantly sung whilst still well-integrated into the recording’s overall sound-picture.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — a golden age for carol writing — are well represented, not least by Henry Walford Davies’s delightful setting of O little town of Bethlehem (complete with its introductory biblical recitative) and Harold Darke’s justly-celebrated version of In the bleak mid-winter. The ‘next generation’ of carols here includes Herbert Howells’s Sing Lullaby and Pierre Villette’s exquisitely evocative Hymne à la Vierge, inexplicably neglected in his native France but a firm favourite with English choirs.

More recent festive fare comes in the shape of John Rutter’s highly popular Nativity Carol of 1971, which here rubs shoulders with Gabriel Jackson’s gently lilting The Christ-child, a 2009 commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.

Among the more striking arrangements, two in particular stand out: Jonathan Rathbone’s exuberant 1991 adaptation of the ever-popular Gabriel’s Message, and Jan Sandström’s hauntingly beautiful 1990 arrangement of Michael Praetorius’s 16th-century hymn setting Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. Traditionalists will certainly also enjoy Of the Father’s heart begotten in David Willcocks’s 1963 version, complete with imposing organ accompaniment.

In a rather different vein, two Swingle-style close-harmony arrangements provide a lighter side to the festivities, in the shape of Ben Parry’s version of Jingle Bells and Jonathan Rathbone’s adaptation of Greg Lake’s I believe in Father Christmas, while a similarly light-hearted Carol Medley also by Rathbone makes a perfect conclusion.

Solo contributions are uniformly excellent, Martin Ford’s organ accompaniments perfectly judged, and the recording ideally balanced. At bargain price, this latest Vasari disc is sure to delight anyone looking for a musical backdrop to this year’s Yuletide celebrations.