This Christmas Night: Contemporary Carols
The vast majority of Christmas carol CDs spend most of their playing careers providing seasonal atmosphere. Critical listening is not something widely associated with Christmas music and perhaps the phenomenal success of John Rutter, the only contemporary composer really to have broken into the Christmas carol market, is down to his ability to write music which is undemanding for the casual listener. Not a note of Rutter here; but, in the main, these 17 composers manage to exude Christmassy sensations in their miniatures – ranging from Elisabeth Lutyens’s 1951 carol Nativity to Hallgrímsson’s lovely 2012 setting of a 14th-century text, Joseph and the Angel – without seriously compromising their distinctive musical personas. It could provide largely inoffensive background listening but deserves closer aural attention on account
of the excellence of these performances.
Which is not to say that there are no worthwhile carols here; and while Mark-Anthony Turnage is on a hiding to nothing trying to prise our ears away from Grüber’s ubiquitous melody for Silent night (calling it Claremont Carol won’t pull the wool over many eyes) and Kenneth Leighton simply spices up the familiar tune for O leave your sheep, some of the others produce music which is both distinctive and immediately accessible. Thomas Hyde’s Sweet was the song and Matthew Martin’s I sing of a Maiden are among the more attractive carols of recent years.
It is all – inspired or tired, original or ordinary – delivered with captivating charm, considerable beauty of sound and unfussy clarity of detail. In addition to drawing some immensely lovely singing from the 23 voices of his Worcester College choir, Stephen Farr adds further distinction to the disc through some robust performances of organ solos by Leighton and Thomas Hyde. All is captured in a rich recording from the download-only Resonus label and my only regret is that only a top-of-the-range, state-of-the-art printer will do justice to Resonus’s beautifully crafted booklet.