Magazine article Gramophone

Hark! the Christmas Choirs Sing: Andrew Mellor Listens to This Year's Most Interesting Seasonal Offerings, from the Sixteen and the King's Singers to the Bolshoi Theatre Children's Choir

Magazine article Gramophone

Hark! the Christmas Choirs Sing: Andrew Mellor Listens to This Year's Most Interesting Seasonal Offerings, from the Sixteen and the King's Singers to the Bolshoi Theatre Children's Choir

Article excerpt

'It is a pity that in recent years arrangements of well-known carols have become so elaborate, to the extent that they almost obscure a well-loved tune.' So writes Harry Christophers in the booklet to The Sixteen's 'Song of the Nativity', and his comment crystallises one of the eternal arguments about how a 'carol' should treat the ears of its listeners. But The Sixteen's recording offers both apt and frustrating answers to the question of just what we should expect from new choral music, even at Christmas. Clearly, making an original yet festive Christmas carol CD--for want of a better descriptor--is harder than it would seem. This year's crop might contain some gems but in general terms it proves the point.

Issues of composition aside for the moment, one element uniting each offering here is that none includes congregational singing, which in actual Christmas liturgies often proves a necessarily communal counterpoint to the more intricate choir-only works. Any choir making a CD of traditional carols without a rent-a-crowd of unison singers needs to deal cannily with the resulting lack of majesty and oomph.

The Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea short-circuits that issue with a bijou collection--Carols from Chelsea--that goes big on understatement. This ensemble has some first-class personnel and it's the tension and subtlety in the performances that catch the ear. Adolph Adam's O holy night throbs and Helen Ashby's solo in Harold Darke's In the bleak midwinter is, like much of the singing, beautifully considered. Chelsea Pensioner George Hatton is no Bing Crosby (he's more of a Feodor Chaliapin, in fact) but his cameo in Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' movingly underscores the choir's raison d'etre. Perhaps the reigned-in approach has one casualty in a frustratingly cool rendition of John Gardner's 1965 Tomorrow shall be my dancing day--one of those modern carols that solves any aesthetic problems with unfettered ease.

The Chelsea singers de-camped to the Temple Church to cut their disc but another London chapel choir, that of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, stayed at home for Adeste Fideles. The tight acoustic space of the chapel at St James's Palace works well for the piquant organ bedrock of the Sussex Carol (David Willcocks), Sans Day Carol (John Rutter) and for Malcolm Sargent's rarely heard Spiritual arrangements. But the small space also underlines the idiosyncrasies of the equally small ensemble: with just 11 trebles, the top line isn't the purest; one of the basses sings consistently under the note and Three kings from. Persian lands (Cornelius arr Atkins) is marred by soloist Maciek O'Shea's wayward vibrato. As for the beefy carol-hymns including Adeste fideles (apparently traceable as a work to this very ensemble), they lack impact.

This choir's leadership has included Byrd, Purcell and Handel, and the inclusion of music by two of their successors highlights the treacherous difficulty of writing original Christmas music that will last: Richard Popplewell's Blessed Jesu! Here we stand isn't going to change the world but is an example of effective, clear, joyous carol writing; Andrew Gant's arrangement of We wish you a merry Christmas is more of a pile-up, sometimes lacking in clarity and often plain crude.

Both those pieces, however, have the unmistakeable gait of a carol. But what exacdy does that mean? There are plenty of hard, contextual and fearlessly contemporary answers in Alexandra Coghlan's examination of Yuletide music's DNA, Carols from Kings: the stories of our favourite carols from King's College, and some indispensable commentary in the book's final chapters on the establishment of the King's carol service and its legacy for contemporary composition. Few institutions have done more than King's to foster new music but as Coghlan reveals, the commissioning of carols front genuinely original composers is a risky business.

For that reason I was intrigued by Kantorei Kansas City's To Bethlehem, which combines 16th-century discoveries--the best of them by Blasius Ammon (155 8-90)--with new works. …

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