Album Review

Posted: Sunday 9th December 2012
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A Winter’s Light – International Record Review

There’s nothing wrong with the kind of Christmas disc you’re likely to have playing in the background on Christmas morning, while you’re busy in the kitchen, doing, helping, maybe getting in the way, but generally with a small glass of something warming close to hand and possibly already wearing a paper had. This superb disc, very finely recorded, and with an excellent booklet containing all texts and translations, is not one of these.

The warm organ tones and soothing unison melody of the opening piece by Bob Chilcott will not surprise the composer’s admirers – of which I am one – but the sudden appearance of a well-known carol as a skillful counterpoint to Chilcott’s own tune, probably will. Similar dexterity is demonstrated in two other extracts from the same composer’s carol cycle On Christmas Night, composed in 2010 for an American Choir. Jeremy Backhouse, in his admirable booklet note, describes the one remaining Chilcott piece, Christmas-tide, as ‘simple but deeply poignant’. Chilcott fan I may be but I have no doubt his is onto a winner with it. Chilcott and countless other contemporary composers can probably thank John Rutter for leading the way towards the now ubiquitous style of approachable, tonal choral music. No Christmas would be complete, writes Backhouse, without a Rutter carol, and whilst I don’t always share the enthusiasm, Nativity Carol is one of his most attractive and honest short works and certainly earns its place in this distinguished collection.

The exuberant arrangement of Gabriel’s Message by one-time Swingle Singer Jonathan Rathbone is one of four pieces that make up what Backhouse refers to as the ‘close harmony’ element of every Vasari Christmas programme. If I enjoyed this piece, and especially Rathbone’s version of Greg Lake’s I believe in Father Christmas, a good deal more than the other two, this is nothing more than musical snobbishness and you should take no notice of it. The arrangements are sensational and one is in awe before a choir that can turn in magnificent performances of the most serious and taxing works in the repertoire, yet is able to turn its collective hand, with slickness that defies description, to entertaining showstoppers such as these.

The Early Music is beautifully done. The word ‘arrangement’ is inadequate to describe the magical, ethereal halo of sound Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom dreams up and places alongside the old favourite Es ist ein Ros’ ensprungen. Among other old favourites, all of which are also beautifully performed, can be found Adam’s O Holy Night and full marks to Backhouse, who no doubt having to count his words, still manages to provide in his essay information about this piece that is at once totally useless, interesting and highly entertaining.

The four remaining pieces might be classified as ‘serious’ works. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’s The Stable Door is a charming discovery and could easily become another Christmas regular. Howells’s Sing Lullaby is perhaps the least known of his three carol anthems. Less immediately attractive than the other two, A Spotless Rose and Here is the little door, it is very lovely Howells nonetheless. Pierre Vilette, who died only in 1998, was a French composer whose output was even more meagre than that of his teacher Maurice Durufle. Most of his music was written for choirs and the British choral movement has rather taken him to its heart, whereas few music lovers in his native country have even heard of him. Hymn a la Vierge is as rich and perfumed as all his music and some might baulk at it, but it is well laid out for voices and highly effective in performance.

Writing about Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ Child in the July/August edition I took the view that a suspension here and there, had he barred them out, might have brought this exquisite little piece closer to perfection. I have seen and studied the score since then so may I take the comment back? I still think the composer indulges himself just a little, but who wouldn’t when writing for the King’s College Choir? The piece is a fine example of how powerfully expressive diatonic harmony can be when employed by a composer of supreme imagination. Its five minutes contain some of the finest music on this desirable disc.

William Hedley
International Record Review