mon 29/11/2021

Classical CDs Weekly: Honegger, Paul Hillier, Libera | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Honegger, Paul Hillier, Libera

Classical CDs Weekly: Honegger, Paul Hillier, Libera

Seasonal discs include a rarely heard gem from a Swiss composer and two very different carol collections

Airy and rhythmically sharp: Vladimir Jurowski conducts HoneggerThomas Kurek

 

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël, Pastorale d’été, Symphony No 4 London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, New London Childrens’ Choir/Jurowski (LPO)

Arthur Honegger’s best-known work is his short, mechanistic portrayal of a steam engine, Pacific 231. It’s a brash, brilliant study of rhythm and tempo; the speed of the musical pulse actually slowing as the train gets faster. Alas, it’s not included on this LPO disc, but we do get the unexpectedly delightful Pastorale d’été, a seven-minute bluesy haze of a piece which suggests an unlikely meeting between Gershwin and Vaughan Williams. Honegger’s Symphony No 4, a commission from the great Paul Sacher, is another pleasant surprise. It’s less oppressive in tone than his other symphonies, and there’s a lightness and clarity to its sound world which means that the relentless counterpoint never plods. Vladimir Jurowski’s performance is airy and rhythmically sharp, and beautifully played.

We also get a welcome chance to hear Honegger’s last major work, Une cantate de Noël. It’s lovely stuff – the dourness of the opening giving no hint of the sheer charm of much of what follows. In essence, it’s a sophisticated carol medley. And when Honegger is able to superimpose and layer melodies on top of one another, his use of a bright-toned childrens’ choir alongside a conventional adult chorus means that you can actually hear what’s going on. There’s a joyous moment near the close when the choral cries of "Amen" melt into a tender orchestral postscript. It had me reaching for the Kleenex. Very good singing from the LPO Chorus and the New London Children’s Choir, and an excellent live RFH recording.

Hillier's Christmas StoryThe Christmas Story Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen/Hillier (Harmonia Mundi)

This lovely disc offers a Danish take on the traditional English carol service. The readings aren’t included, but we get a sequence of 23 numbers, some familiar, cannily structured so as to tell the Christmas story. They’re drawn from a huge range of sources, from medieval plainchant to a few 20th-century pieces. Of these, the most striking is Howard Skempton’s haunting Adam lay y-bounden, which like this composer’s other work manages to sound both archaic and contemporary at the same time. This needs to be listened to in sequence, in one go, and following the texts leads to a pretty profound, immersive experience. Paul Hillier’s arrangements of traditional carols are unfailingly sensitive; the highlights being a radiant version of the Italian "Dormi, dormi o bel bambino" and an account of "Liebe hirten" underpinned by bell sounds in tenor and bass projected with, err, gusto.

Choral duties are shared between Hillier’s own Theatre of Voices who sing the three Baroque dialogues, each one almost an operatic scene in miniature. Ars Nova Copenhagen sing the larger-scale pieces, with an unerring ability to sound idiomatic despite the diverse range of languages and musical styles. As you’d expect, they’re most at home in Niles Gade’s sweet setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s "Barn Jesus I en krybbe lå". Ars Nova close proceedings with an immaculate a cappella version of "We Wish you a Merry Christmas". Harmonia Mundi's sound is exemplary, with just the right amount of reverberation.

Libera's Christmas AlbumLibera: The Christmas Album (EMI)

Robert Prizeman’s south-London boys’ choir give us their Christmas disc. Despite having been recorded during the early summer heatwave, the group do enter into the spirit of things. And the singing is generally great – you can detect a very slight rough edge to the boys’ sound which is exactly as it should be – this is a childrens’ choir. Their intonation is spot on. My reservations have to do with the synthetic production values; carols are invariably fussily arranged and the recorded balance is too upfront and two-dimensional. You just wish that Libera had been taped with a single microphone in a church acoustic with a simple piano or organ accompaniment – listening to this disc can feel like being pelted with boiled sweets. 

This is such a shame, as the performances are accomplished and there are some interesting items here, and there’s a nice balance between traditional songs and modern schmaltz. Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas" suits Libera’s glitzy approach perfectly, and there’s a nice stab at Billy Joel’s "Goodnight my Angel". Britten’s "Corpus Christi Carol" survives with its dignity intact, but the austere 16th-century "Coventry Carol" feels too cosy, too comfortable. For a better demonstration of how good Libera can be, purchase Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, where they add a magical contribution to the Waltz of the Snowflakes.

There’s a joyous moment near the close when the choral cries of 'Amen' melt into a tender orchestral postscript. It had me reaching for the Kleenex

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"This is such a shame, as the performances are accomplished and there are some interesting items here, and there’s a nice balance between traditional songs and modern schmaltz. Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas" suits Libera’s glitzy approach perfectly, and there’s a nice stab at Billy Joel’s "Goodnight my Angel". Britten’s "Corpus Christi Carol" survives with its dignity intact, but the austere 16th-century "Coventry Carol" feels too cosy, too comfortable. For a better demonstration of how good Libera can be, purchase Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, where they add a magical contribution to the Waltz of the Snowflakes." Your review is generally good but I might point out this is what Robert Prizeman has been doing with Libera and as their name implies, to be FREE. In this case it would be freedom from traditional arraignments, and conducting. To me, what Prizeman has achieved here is to create music that not only satisfies the ear but the soul as well with young voices, voices of innocence. I have a copy of this album and I am very pleased with it; to the point where I bought six more copies to use as Christmas Gifts. Merry Christmas, Terry

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