Jeremy Nicholas seeks out seasonal discs that dare to depart from the norm
How many Christmas discs can the market take of different cathedral and church choirs parading their seasonal wares? Each year brings a new crop with at least half the repertoire seemingly common to all. Christmas from Chichester becomes interchangeable with Christmas from King’s, Ripon, Wells or anywhere else in the country. But commercial cynicism aside, there is nothing quite as reassuring, as uplifting, as life-affirming as a good English cathedral choir on top form singing the same familiar songs.
What adds to the distinction of a disc like 'Christmas from Bath' is the sound engineering. Whatever the secret is of capturing a mighty organ in a big acoustic with the (in this case) Abbey choir, Regent’s Gary Coles has it. Peter King mixes the familiar with the new(ish) including A stable lamp by Richard Shephard (b1949) and The Christ-child by Gabriel Jackson (b1962), new carol classics. Every member of the choir is named in the booklet (a nice touch) which also has all the lyrics. That’s how to do it.
Pitiable by comparison is DG Eloquence's annotation for its reissued collection of Christmas carols entitled, with breathtaking imagination, 'Christmas Carols'. The USP is that the 27 numbers are all sung a cappella – and Musica Sacra, the New York-based professional choir who recorded them back in 1987, sing them very well indeed. Among this unashamedly popular programme, it’s good to hear the original Lewis Redner tune for O little town of Bethlehem.
But let me gradually take you further from your comfort zone. Here, on the enterprising EM (English Music) label, are two world premiere recordings of Christmas music by the late John Gardner (1917-2011). Cantata for Christmas is a suite of seven songs written in 1966, five of them based on well-known Christmas numbers, scored for mixed-voice chorus, string orchestra, oboe, bassoon and horn. Gardner himself did not hold the work in particularly high regard and certainly some settings (Puer nobis nascitur, for instance, with its catchy quirkily-altered rhythm) are more effective than others. 'Christmas Carols' is a collection of eight songs including Gardner’s most successful work, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The disc is rounded off with a third world premiere: Gardner’s Chamber Concerto for organ and 10 players. Stephen King does the organ honours throughout with Hilary Davan Whetton conducting the carols.
Further afield to Christmas music from Latin America and Spain sung by Canadian Medieval and Renaissance specialists The Toronto Consort (you may have heard them in the music they recorded for two popular television series, The Tudors and The Borgias). With the help of a baroque guitar, vihuela and bajón, the six voices bring us 17 songs from the 16th and 17th centuries with an infectious enthusiasm, reminding us of the dance origins of carols. 'Navidad' is the title of the disc. It’s terrific.
Nothing could provide a greater contrast than the music used for the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church sung during Christmas and Holy Week. On 'Liturgie der Koptisch-Orthodoxen Kirche', the choir of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo sings some of the earliest Christian music (the Coptic Church, it is claimed, possesses the oldest school of music in the world). Think of plainsong sung by a choir of mullahs and you’re close to the sound – and quite mesmeric it is too.
Unlike the music on 'Christmas at Westminster' (that’s Westminster, Princeton, New Jersey, not the site of the mother of parliaments). Hand bell ringing has always struck me as great fun for the campanologists and torture for the audience. Its allure has always escaped me. That said, the proficiency of the Westminster Concert Bell Choir (Kathleen Ebling Shaw, director) is on an exalted level compared to the tiny tots dragged out to perform Jingle Bells at the Primary School Christmas Concert. But do I want to hear the ‘Farandole’ from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite and the ‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kijé played on bells? Once will do, after which even Quasimodo would beg for mercy.
Finally back home to the Music Room at Champs Hill, West Sussex. There on a hot June day in 2012 is the David Rees-Williams Trio – David Rees-Williams is the pianist, with Neil Francis (electric bass) and Phil Laslett (drums). They are recording another of their trademark albums, 'Ex-mass', that conflate classical and jazz styles, only this time it is twelve Christmas carols that are put through their paces, much as another jazz trio might tackle the great American song book. The playing and/or arrangements – enhanced at various junctures by a Hammond organ, vibraphone and Nord C2 digital keyboard – are as imaginative as they are tasteful and stylistically eclectic. Among the highlights are David Rees-Williams accompanying his 12-year-old treble self in King Jesus hath a garden, and his clever take on Bach’s Erbarm’ dich mein (BWV721), here transformed into...well, it won’t spoil the joke if I tell you the B in BWV now stands for Berlin.
Buy the December issue of Gramophone to read our round-up of the most impressive Christmas releases of 2012.