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Recordings

On Christmas Day
11 Dec 2005

On Christmas Day

Tastes in music for Christmas are quite personal. One individual’s beloved tradition may be another’s annoying jangling that just won’t go away.

On Christmas Day

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (cond.)

EMI Classics 7243 5 58070 2 1 [2CDs]

$13.48  Click to buy

For many amateur choirs, the musically sophisticated director’s attempt to introduce something satisfyingly novel in the form of contemporary music, or even contemporary arrangements of very old music, becomes the bane of the choir members’ existence as they desperately try to hear the music in the strange vocal lines and harmonies that they are asked to sing, often to unfamiliar texts in Latin or some earlier version of English. And yet music is such an integral part of the celebration of Christmas, that we seek new pieces that will somehow speak the language of the season to us, even as we enjoy rehearing the standards, be they “Silent Night” or Handel’s Messiah, that recall Christmas Past, either our own past or the imagined past of our culture. And we can be sure that, while at some point we will find ourselves sitting and listening to a presentation of “Christmas Music” in a holiday program or church service, there will be other times when the music will be in the background, at best gently reviving our warm feelings of the season, but possibly simply annoying us, as we go about the many tasks that the season brings with it.

My own collection of favorite Christmas music is eclectic, but heavily favors classical music, and I am a member of a reasonably adventurous church choir, so I listened with interest to this collection of carols that have been commissioned, one each year since 1983, from major contemporary composers, by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, for their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. One impression emerged very quickly: while this music is expertly performed by a choir whose stock in trade is a very pure, beautiful sound, most of this music is challenging enough that only for a party of the most sophisticated contemporary music lovers would you consider using this as background music. Even in the meditative atmosphere of the service for which they were written, they presumably provided a modern contrast with the more traditional music that surrounded them. On first listening, I would say the most readily accessible carols are Arvo Pärt’s folklike setting of part of the Orthodox Liturgy, the Bob Chilcott “Shepherd’s Carol”, written for the 2000 Carols from Kings televised service, and “What Sweeter Music”, commissioned in 1987 from that mainstay of the modern church choir, John Rutter. But I think most of the music could be appreciated by the listener who is willing to spend some meditative time with the twenty-two works presented on two discs. It is very helpful to follow the texts which, while mostly in English, are in many cases settings of medieval or 17th-century metaphysical poetry, and some include interpolations in Latin or Hebrew.

The carols are largely performed a capella by the choir of men’s and boys’ voices, with organ accompanying a few, or a flute providing a winter wind and birdsong in Giles Swayne’s “Winter Solstice Carol”. In many cases the composers worked with the choir and director in rehearsal, even taking into consideration the altered sound quality of the chapel when filled to capacity for the service. The roster of composers includes some very distinguished names (not being someone who spends a lot of time with contemporary music, I figure they are very distinguished names if I’ve heard of them) such as Pärt, Richard Rodney Bennett, Lennox Berkeley, and Peter Maxwell Davies, but since each composer is represented only once, and there are twenty-two tracks in all, this CD can also serve as an introduction to a wide range of contemporary composers. For true contemporary music lovers, this release may well be important in that, from what I could tell from composers’ web pages that I checked to learn more about them, many of these carols do not appear among the composers’ published works.

The carols are presented in an order calculated to provide an interesting and varied program, rather than chronologically. The track listing in the booklet provides the year of first performance for each carol, along with texts (and translations of foreign phrases and footnotes for obsolete English words, although a little familiarity with Middle English will probably make the texts a bit easier to grasp), and an informative essay by choir director Stephen Cleobury describing how he came to commission these works for the choir, and how it has worked over the years.

Barbara Miller

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