Music on Christmas Morning – MusicWeb International
Music on Christmas Morning – MusicWeb International
I well remember reviewing an excellent Christmas disc, ‘Noël nouvelet’ by Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers, not least because I have probably played the disc at least once every Christmas since then. Nonetheless, it came as a bit of a shock to look back and discover that the disc came out as long ago as 2007 (review). They followed up that CD with another one, ‘A Winter’s light’, this time for Naxos, which was no less enjoyable (review). Here, now is their latest Christmas offering. As annotator David Bray puts it, the programme is “a potpourri of seasonal music, uniting old and new, and with something for everyone”. I think that’s a pretty fair summary. The disc takes its title from the piece by Helena Paish, of which more in a moment.
I suspect that an important attraction for many prospective purchasers will be the presence of guest soloist Roderick Williams. Earlier this year I reviewed a most enjoyable Vasari Singers disc of British Choral Anthems on which Williams gave a memorable account of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. In fact, Roderick Williams’ contributions to both that disc and the present one were recorded at the same sessions, in October 2021. On this new disc he appears in Finzi’s wonderful Christmas piece, In Terra Pax. It’s not his first recording of the work; in 2009 he recorded it as part of a Christmas programme by the City of London Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton (review). That performance used Finzi’s version of the score with full orchestral accompaniment – I strongly prefer the original orchestration which uses strings, harp and (at just one point) a cymbal. On this new Vasari Singers disc the accompaniment is by organ. Martin Ford has created this organ part from the piano reduction and I think he’s been very successful, especially in the hushed opening and closing sections (there are elements of the more energetic central section which, in all honesty, only work properly, I believe, when an orchestra is involved, no matter how skilled the keyboard player/arranger). The present performance is excellent in every respect. Williams sings beautifully and with his customary exquisite care for the words. It’s also a decided advantage that his top register is so finely produced, especially in the last few bars of the solo part when Finzi takes his soloist very high indeed. The Vasari Singers sing with great sensitivity – and with no little energy in the vigorous central section. I must single out one of their number, the soprano Jocelyn Somerville. She sings the lovely solo that contains the words of the Angel to the shepherds (‘Fear not’). I’ve heard many sopranos in this piece, some of them prominent names, and Ms Somerville’s delivery of this solo is as good as I’ve heard. She sings with poise, pure tone and great clarity. Bravo!
Roderick Williams features in three smaller items. It’s a treat to hear his silky baritone in the solo verse of Howells’ celebrated A Spotless Rose. His solo singing in the last verse of Quelle est cette odeur agréable? brings an extra distinction to a lovely overall performance of this old French carol. Williams also features in London Waits (Past Three O’clock). He is, in effect, the nightwatchman in the atmospheric prologue and postlude to the well-known carol Past Three O’clock. I think William Llewellyn’s approach to this carol is very imaginative; I enjoyed it very much.
What I might call the title track of this album is a new carol by Helena Paish (b 2002) This piece was commissioned by the Vasari Singers to mark their 40th anniversary in 2022. This is, in fact, the second piece by her that I’ve encountered on CD. She was one of the founding Girl Choristers at Truro Cathedral, after which she went on to be a Choral Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. A couple of years ago I heard and was impressed by her piece While Mary slept (2020) on a disc of Christmas music made by the Truro Cathedral choir (review). For Music on Christmas Morning, she has selected words by Anne Brontë (1820-1849) and set them for unaccompanied choir. The music is fluent and melodious; Paish demonstrates a fine talent for choral writing and for responding to words. The piece includes an ear-catching soprano solo which gives Jocelyn Somerville another chance to shine. I think this is an excellent Christmas piece.
It’s almost de rigeur to include music by John Rutter on a Christmas disc. Here, we get three of his pieces. I’ve sung in several performances of Candlelight Carol over the years and heard many more. I can never quite shake off a sense of the saccharine, even when it’s expertly sung, as here. Some might feel that Christmas Lullaby falls into the same category but I find it a touching little piece and I much enjoyed this suave performance. I’m not sure that Dormi, Jesu is as widely performed as some of Rutter’s other Christmas offerings, which is a pity. If my suspicions are correct, perhaps it’s because the harmonies are rather interesting (and a bit more challenging for choirs). The harmonies become quite complex at the close of this carol but the Vasari Singers make everything clear; theirs is a fine performance of this beautiful carol.
There are a couple of very high-spirited offerings. One is Adrian Peacock’s Venite, Gaudete! which I’m sure I’ve heard before. It’s an exciting, eager composition for unaccompanied choir. The present performance is packed with energy. Iain Farrington’s Nova, nova was commissioned by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge for Andrew Nethsingha’s last Advent Carol Service in 2022. The text is a fifteenth-century adaptation of the Annunciation story, as related in St Luke’s Gospel. Farrington sets the words to extremely lively, blues-inflected music for choir and organ. The singers are required to click their fingers, clap and stamp their feet during the performance. It’s great fun and the Vasari Singers really nail this exhilarating piece. By sheer coincidence a live recording of the first performance by the St John’s choir has just arrived with me for review, though I haven’t listened to the disc yet. Knowing that fine choir, I’m sure it will be excellent but they’ll have to go some to surpass the vitality of this Vasari Singers rendition.
In more reflective mood, the Vasari Singers offer us Roxanna Panufnik’s Sleep, Jesus, Sleep. This is a touching arrangement of a traditional Ukrainian melody. The present performance is satisfyingly sensitive; Elizabeth Limb sings the soprano solo towards the end very nicely indeed.
Then it’s on to a decidedly secular conclusion with a couple of arrangements of Christmas songs. Goff Richards’ arrangement of Hugh Martin’s classic involves references to several other Christmas standards. It’s skilfully done and entertaining. It would be an ideal encore to a Christmas concert, except that Jeremy Backhouse and his singers have other ideas. The final item pulled out of this Christmas stocking is Bob Chilcott’s arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which sends us all off with a smile on our faces.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD. As well as enjoying the music and the consistently excellent performances, I enjoyed the variety of the programme. David Bray, whose notes are very useful, was right on the money in saying that there’s something for everyone. Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Dave Rowell have recorded the performances expertly.
When I reviewed this choir’s previous Christmas disc, ‘A Winter’s light’, back in 2012, my colleague John Sheppard had already reviewed it and I quoted from his comments. To be honest, I think that what he had to say then applies just as much to this latest disc and his comments bear repetition: “What do you want when you look for a CD of Christmas music? I would guess a mixture of old and new, with the old cunningly renewed and with the new not too unfamiliar in idiom or content. If that is what you want, then you certainly have it in this disc, and, what is more, you also have a disc whose musical standards in terms of both the music and the performance are extremely high.” Just so.