mon 08/08/2022

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas Discs | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas Discs

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas Discs

Three of the very best seasonal releases; albums you'll be playing long after the event

Immaculately attired: VOCES8


Advent at Merton Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas (Delphian)

Delphian’s Christmas CD, recorded in the glowing acoustic of Merton College Chapel, is a satisfyingly solemn, serious affair. Here, the Advent progression from hushed anticipation to bright, hopeful light is given extra weight by the varied choice of material sung – notably a sequence of seven newly commissioned antiphons from contemporary composers. Howard Skempton’s tiny O Sapienta closes abruptly just as you’re beginning to bask in its warm glow, followed by a pleasingly angular O Adonai from John Tavener. The sustained dissonances in Celia MacDowall’s O Oriens carry an astonishing emotional clout.

Elsewhere, the mixture of settings ancient and modern succeeds beautifully. Judith Weir’s Drop down, ye heavens, from above offers two minutes of barely harmonised bliss. We get three treatments of the Advent carol known in English as Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming, Jan Sandström’s new age-y version striking when heard after David Blackwell’s rather staid treatment. Two pieces by James MacMillan are jewels, showcasing this composer’s Poulenc-like ability to combine profundity with sentiment. Lovely, in other words.

Ex-Mass David Rees-Williams Trio (Champs Hill Records)

There’s no singing on this jolly blast of an album, which successfully mingles sentiment, intelligence, cheesiness and reverence. It’s also one of those rare beasts – a Christmas disc which you can imagine listening to after the event. Keyboard player David Rees-William’s jazz trio arrangements always hit the spot. Hammond organ and vibraphone are used to add colour – the former giving Gabriel’s Message a 1970s prog-rock feel. A Bach chorale prelude can’t help recalling Jacques Loussier. Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down begins quizzically before becoming a Hammond-infused romp.

Jauntily played vibes give the Czech Zither Carol infectious bounce. All fabulous – much of the praise due to Neil Frances and Phil Laslett on bass and drums respectively. Rees-William’s erudition is artfully displayed in Erbarme dich, where Bach slyly crosses paths with Irving Berlin. It’s so subtly done, so you can forgive the rather corny plot-spoiler of a cadence which gives the joke away near the close. Handsomely produced and annotated too.

VOCES8: Christmas (Signum)

Open up the booklet and there’s a deeply silly, yet very stylish, publicity shot of VOCES8. When you note in the small print the details of which particular upmarket outfitters these eight vocalists are “officially dressed” by, the heart sinks a little. They don’t need the gimmicky presentation. There’s nowhere to hide in a vocal octet, and VOCES8’s singing is faultless – jaw-droppingly so in places. I approached this disc in a state of postprandial somnolence, only to feel spiritually rejuvenated within seconds of pressing play. The balance of carols old and new is well-judged, and it’s fascinating to hear the group’s unadorned versions of numbers heard in fancier garb on the discs reviewed above – versions of Bethlehem Down and There Is No Rose sung with spectacular control and clarity.

We get Górecki’s quietly ecstatic Totus Tuus, written in 1987 for Pope John Paul II’s return to Poland. A rarely-heard carol by Walton closes the recital, and there are two motets by Poulenc. The traditional numbers are skillfully and tastefully arranged. Everything is dispatched with affection and palpable sincerity; another Christmas anthology you can imagine listening to in July.

Rees-William’s erudition is artfully displayed in 'Erbarme dich', where Bach slyly crosses paths with Irving Berlin

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