“A Fabulous CD,
International Record Review
“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
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Organist: Jeremy Filsell
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Released by Guild, October 2007
- Recorded at St Jude’s, Hampstead, London, November 2006
- Recorded in 24-bit resolution
A fresh mix of new and favourite Christmas Carols
A very fine disc. Essential listening
A uniquely fresh mix of new and favourite Christmas carols proclaims the front of the CD booklet. The singing certainly has the freshness and clarity that one associates with this fine choir and unique elements are provided by such tracks as Naji Hakim’s virtuosic arrangement of Ding Dong! merrily on high; Malcom Sargent’s Hawaiian Lullaby (you’ll either love it or hate it – just remember that Christmas is a time for having fun!); and Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire).
The stylistic breadth of the Vasari Singers is dazzlingly demonstrated on this recording. They are equally at home in the dreamy-cheesy Hawaiian lullaby; the tongue-in-cheek knockabout of Andrew Carter’s arrangement of The Twelve days of Christmas, the wholesome muscularity of Mendelssohn’s Frohlokket ihr Volker, the bitter-sweetness of Leighton’s Coventry carol; the haunting chill of Judith Wier’s Illuminare, Jerusalem, and the ecstatic mysticism of Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium.
A very fine disc. Essential listening.
Tired of the same old carols and looking for some fresh Christmas music this year? This should do the trick. The Vasari Singers, one of the best choirs around at the moment, have wrapped up a tasty box of old and new, with some lovely carols from Kenneth Leighton, Morten Lauridsen, Humphrey Clucas and Judith Weir, as well as outrageous arrangements of ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ and ‘The 12 Days of Christmas.’ Just add mince pies.
A fabulous CD, brilliantly recorded
The ‘Kyrie from Whitborn’s Missa Carolae is subtitled ‘Noël Nouvelet’, which means variously ‘new’, ‘novel’ or even ‘novelty’ – and this is the title of a new CO of Christmas carols, new and old, from Guild, sung by the Vasari Singers, conducted by Jeremy Backhouse, with organist Jeremy Filsell As with many of the COs in this round-up, the music chosen is far from conventional.
There are few traditional carols here, but my attention was fully held throughout – not least because of the superb singing. We know from many of this choir’s London concerts just what a good body of singers it is, but even so I was consistently impressed by the sheer quality of their artistry here – intonation, phrasing and enunciation are all of an exceptional standard. There is much modern music here – but none which will offend the genuine music lover. I was pleased to encounter Judith Weir’s II/uminare Jerusalem and Torme’s The Christmas Song in Ward Swingle’s arrangement. This outstanding disc ends with a dazzling a cappella version of
The Twelve Days off Christmas by Andrew Carter, which contains some delightful musical puns and jokes. This is a fabulous CD, brilliantly recorded.
A welcome addition to any Christmas CD list
One of the best amateur chamber choirs in the country, the Vasari Singers are renowned for their Christmas performances. But they are also known for their love of new music, and here, alongside some lesser-known favourites in new arrangements, are five world premiere recordings.
As conductor Jeremy Backhouse says, the choir has ‘ dressed up the traditional in new clothes’, paying tribute to modern classics such as Coventry carol and Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. It also celebrates the new with Jonathan Rathbone’s scrunchy Corpus christi carol and Humphrey Clucas’s Victorian-esque Love came down at Christmas.
There’s plenty of fun too, with a rousing rendition of Mel Torme’s Christmas song arranged by Ward Swingle, which really suits the choir’s delicate soprano section. Malcom Sargent’s arrangement of Hawaiian lullay is also here, adding to a really eclectic collection.
Occasionally there’s no mistaking that the choir is an amateur one, with the odd bit of dodgy tuning here and there, and a few raggedy entries. But the joy and vigour with which they sing and the innovativeness of these arrangement make this a welcome addition to any Christmas CD list.
Well this CD certainly does what it says on the label – present a uniquely fresh mix of new and favourite Christmas carols. The excellent Vasari Singers open their Christmas programme with an a capella Mendelssohn motet where the ensemble is crisp and resonant. The sopranos and altos are on good form contributing much to this disc. Lauridsen’s powerful O magnum mysterium is one of those pieces that should be heard more often. In fact the repertoire on this disc has been carefully chosen. When assembling the programme around the word ‘Nouvelet’ it was interpreted in its broadest sense. So we have a traditional Christmas but with a fresh, modern twist. Of particular note is Hakim’s arrangement of Ding dong!. Other carols like Rathbone’s sumptuous arrangement of Silent night and the lush setting of Away in a manger immediately conjure up the feeling of Christmas so evocatively sung are they. The recital ends with Andrew Carter’s firmly tongue in cheek showpiece arrangement of The twelve days of Christmas. Listen out for all the different tunes cleverly woven into a composition to highlight the different subject of the verses. A thoroughly enjoyable collection of Christmas which will be enjoyed by anyone finding it in their stockings on Christmas day. Absolutely recommended.
Recording of the Month – I can’t think of a better disc of Christmas music for you to find under your tree on December 25th
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.
A very worthwhile purchase
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.