7 reviews

ClassicFM Featured Album, December 2012

The impressively jazzy Jingle Bells with quirky key changes and swirling harmonies is light-hearted and exciting, but it’s not just the frivolous carols that benefit from a modern reworking. Even the traditionalGabriel’s Message has an unexpected cheeky twist, in an arrangement by J. Rathbone.

But it’s not all lively frolics and off-beat rhythms. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is simply ethereal, with the traditional 16th Century melody building from a single reflective hum into glorious lengthened chords, effectively combining modern harmonies with the simple tune.

An impressive combination of the silly and the sublime, the Vasari Singers prove they can combine 16th Century polyphony with 20th Century favourites, to striking and often beautiful effect.

Daily Telegraph, December 2012

Extracts from Bob Chilcott’s On Christmas Night, melding his own material with well-known carols, punctuate a programme that ends with Jonathan Rathbone’s Carol Medley by way of Sweelinck’s exhilarating Hodie Christus Natus Est, Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter, and Rutter’s Nativity Carol. With a jazzy arrangemenet of Jingle Bells and another of Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, the polished, characterful Vasari Singers cast their net wide to include also Armstrong Gibbs’s lovely minature The Stable Door.

International Record Review, December 2012

Superb disc, very finely recorded

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

BBC Music Magazine, December 2012

Jonathan Rathbone’s energetically bouncing arrangement of Gabriel’s message is a good place to sample the Vasari Singers’ warmly engaged performances, and they impress also in the tricky, undulating chant figurations at the beginning of Howells’s Sing Lullaby.

EuropaDisc, December 2012

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.

MusicWeb International November 2012

…the emphasis here is on music written or arranged by contemporary composers…Extracts from Bob Chilcott’s On Christmas Night have the lion’s share, attractive music, but for me the highlight is a peaceful and ethereal arrangement by Jan Sandström of the Prætorius setting of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen. Even traditionalists can’t complain about the arrangement…There’s plenty of variety, too, with the more solemn mood giving way to secular fun at the end. With the Vasari Singers delivering it all and Naxos providing a good recording this will be regularly on my menu this Christmas.

Brian Wilson

 David’s Review Corner, November 2012

Without the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah and their Carol Concert, many of the UK’s choral societies would financially go out of business. So the choice of music is their annual debate in order to keep the venue full year on year, the Vasari singers, having had thirty years experience in retaining audience interest, present a programme of the familiar and less-known music that has been their winning formula. Dominated by British music, that in recent years has become the cornerstone of such concerts, there is no pretence that the group’s inherent sound will change in style as they travel back from Bob Chilcott’s recent This is the truth, to the 16th century for Giovanni Gabrieli’s 16th century Hodie Christus natus est. Yet the most fascinating sounds come from Michael Praetorius’s in 1609 with Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, while my favourite tracks include Walford Davies’s O little town of Bethlehem, Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter and David Willcocks’ arrangement of the plainchant Of the Father’s heart begotten. Pierre Villette’s Hymne a la Vierge is gorgeous andThe Stable Door from Armstrong Gibbs is a lovely cameo.

David Denton

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