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Choral Music for Christmas and all the Year

King's Singers Christmas

The King's Singers

Signum SIGCD 502 [71 mins]



The Naxos Book of Carols

Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts

Naxos 8.557330 [79 mins]

For most of the year, choirs and choral music reside in a separate world, which is marginalised by "classical" concertgoers. But leading up to Christmas there is no escape. Two collections of carols have been received, vying for seasonal spending money.

The King's Singers, perennial favourites (and not to be confused with the King's College Choir) are six male singers, with changing personnel as anno domini catches up, professional and unaccompanied (apart from a drum and a string quartet enlisted for two items). They maintain their reputation for 'blend, balance and intonation' and this latest of their recordings is fully professional in performance and recording. In this year's King's Singers Christmas they offer 25 tracks, old favourites and novelties from several countries collected on their travels. The arrangements rarely stray from comfortable tonal harmony, and I found the prevailing sweetness of tone palled well before the end. There is a useful recording session video-clip of one of the carols.

Altogther more interesting to me was The Naxos Book of Christmas, a project entrusted to Antony Pitts and his Tonus Peregrinus, a group of individual musicians 'each forging their own diverse careers', which was founded at New College Oxford; fully professional, though their CVs indicate that some of the eight singers (mixed voices) earn their livings otherwise. It is a unified 'concept' collection, an Advent Sequence in well structured groups, The Hope; The Message; The Baby and The King of Kings. Some of the carols are composed, and many are arranged cleverly, by Antony Pitts, with plenty of solo contributions for the members of Tonus Peregrinus, some of the tracks judiciously supported by the organ, which provides variety and helps to shape the sequences. There are good notes by Antony Pitts, who dedicates this admirable disc to 'victims of persecution - - unable to sing and worship freely'. Choirs around the country will probably want to tackle some of these carols, and they can download the Faber scores inexpensively from www.naxoscarols.com . And the CD, lavishly presented with full texts and coloured illustrations, is - of course - only £4.99 !

The distinction between professional and the best amateur choirs is invidious, as will be plain if you invest in the latest release from the annual Cork International Festival. The 48th Festival, combining competition with the celebration of non-professional a capella choral singing, was one of our most memorable musical experiences of 2002, and I recommend following the link for full background into the thriving international movement, exemplified at its best in Ireland and at the 2002 Cork Festival.

The CD is treasurable; enormous variety, consummate skill demonstrated by choirs large and small - competitors and guest ensembles; splendid music in traditional and contemporary idioms, and exhilarating feats of singing. For a collection of (mostly) unaccompanied choral music to enjoy at Christmastide, this is the one to go for; website http://www.corkchoral.ie & purchase from chorfest@iol.ie

But if you don't object to orchestral strengthening of Christmas music, and prefer more substantial works, two more suggestions, late arrivals both.

From Naxos a delicious recording of Charpentier's enchanting Messe de Minuit pour Noël, by the original instruments Arcadia Ensemble from Toronto. The director Kevin Mallon has inserted original Noëls, one of them performed in the Canadian Huron language by a singer of aboriginal extraction.

It is all cheerful music, whatever the text, with the Ressurection clearly in the composer's sights as he sets the Crucifixion! Completed with a Te Deum and Dixit Dominus, sung and played with zest and charm, this is a CD to lift the spirits (Naxos 8.557229).

Finally, you would have to go a long way to beat the attraction of BBC Music Magazine's cover CD of Christmas music by Respighi, Britten & Honegger, which ends with Honegger's last major work, a Christmas Cantata that takes you 'from dark despair to hope and finally joyful affirmation', with quodlibets of carols on the way.

And alongside late Honegger, very early Britten, the miraculous A Boy is Born, an extended virtuoso showpiece composed when he was a 19-yr old student, holding no terrors for the dedicated BBC Chorus, which rehearses twice a week and for a weekend alternate months) or for the Trinity Boys Choir. And that CD will cost you only £3.99, with a nice magazine thrown in, containing commentaries on the music and full texts!



King's Singers Christmas

1 Veni, veni Emmanuel (Trad. arr. Lawson) [3:05]
2 Angelus ad Virginem (Trad. ed. the KS) [1:58]
3 This is the truth sent from above (Trad. arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) [2:39]
4 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (Praetorius) [1:46]
5 Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen (Praetorius) [2:44]
6 There is no rose (Anon. ed. Stevens) [2:25]
7 Coventry Carol (Anon.) [2:45]
8 Nowell sing we now (Bo Holten ed. the KS) [3:53]
9 Remember, O thou man (Ravenscroft) [3:10]
10 In dulci jubilo (Trad. harm. J.S.Bach) [0:56]
11 Lullay my liking (Philip Lawson) [4:27]
12 Bogoroditsye Dyevo (Arvo Pärt) [1:04]
13 The Lamb (John Tavener) [3:23]
14 Maria durch ein' Dornwald ging (Trad. arr. Lawson) [3:40]
15 O little one sweet (Trad. harm. J.S.Bach) [2:12]
16 Bethlehem Down (Peter Warlock) [3:59]
17 The Crown of Roses (Tchaikovsky arr. Lubbock) [3:12]
18 To us in Bethlem City (John McCabe) [2:48]
19 Szczo to za prediwo (Trad. arr. Barwinski) [2:23]
20 There is a flower (John Rutter) [3:54]
21 La Peregrinaçion (Ramirez arr. Knight) [3:09]
22 Away in a manger (Melody W.J.Kirkpatrick arr. Lawson) [2:33]
23 Noël nouvelet (Trad. arr. Lawson) [2:23]
24 Stille Nacht (Gruber arr. Rutter) [3:17]
25 Born on a New Day (David arr. Knight/Lawson) [2:49]
Total running time: [70:49]

The Naxos Book of Carols

O come, o come, Emmanue
lOf the Father's heart begotten
Verbum Patris umanatur, O, O
Alleluya - a new work
Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep
Jesu, the very thought is sweet
Personent hodie
Good King Wenceslas
I saw three ships come sailing in

O quickly come
The holly and the ivy
Hail to the Lord's Anointed

Lo! He comes

Lo, there a Rose is blooming

Ding! dong! merrily on high

While shepherds watched

The Song of Angels

Hark! the herald angels sing

Silent Night

Away in a manger

O little town of Bethlehem

O come, all ye faithful

In dulci jubilo

We three kings of Orient are

© Peter Grahame Woolf