A couple of themes run through this attractive Christmas music compilation. One is the presence of a number of close harmony arrangements of Christmas ‘standards’. The other is Christmas music from the Nordic countries.
There’s an example of the close harmony fare right at the start in the shape of Ben Parry’s arrangement of Jingle Bells. This was done originally for the Swingle Singers, which is a much smaller ensemble than the Trinity College choir. Actually, the Trinity choir is quite large—44 singers are listed—but it’s a tribute to their excellence that they can deliver this arrangement with such deft lightness of touch that one doesn’t feel that the ensemble is too unwieldy for the arrangement. I’m afraid this arrangement isn’t really to my taste but that doesn’t stop me admiring the arranger’s skill nor the excellence of the choir.
The very best time of year is not one of my favourite Rutter Christmas pieces—it is too close to kitsch; here the piece is sung very nicely in an a capella version. The Christmas song is full of seasonal warmth and sweetness in Peter Gritton’s skilful arrangement. Owain Park, one of the Trinity College organ scholars, has contributed several items to this programme. His take on Have yourself a merry little Christmas is very sophisticated though I do wonder if the sophistication isn’t, perhaps, a little too much for the simple sentiments expressed in this number. Among the secular items the prize for ingenuity surely goes to Robert Rice for his arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh ride. You might be puzzled, as I was, by seeing the name of Vaughan Williams there alongside Anderson’s in the track-listing. What a clever idea it was to use material from VW's Full fathom five to introduce Anderson’s Christmas classic. Trust me; it works surprisingly well as the prelude to a most entertaining arrangement.
Owain Park features again with a couple of original compositions. Shepherds' cradle song displays the influences of Rutter and Chilcott—and is none the worse for that—but it’s no mere pastiche. It’s a delightful piece and I hope that if it hasn’t already found a publisher it will be available soon so that other choirs can take it up and enjoy it. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a very different matter. Where Shepherds' cradle song is gentle and soothing Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is all about exciting, inventive rhythms. The booklet notes, which are excellent, are by Ted Tregear, one of the altos in the choir. He writes of this piece that it is “much easier to listen to than it is to perform.” Do I detect a hint of ruefulness there? Suffice to say that the Trinity College choir seem to make light of the difficulties posed in their colleague’s vibrant piece.
As I said, there’s a string Nordic thread running through this programme. Ola Gjeilo is Norwegian, though he now lives in the USA. I was very taken with his arrangement of Holst’s In the bleak mid-winter. I’m afraid I’ve always felt Holst’s setting is rather plain compared to the one by Harold Darke but Gjeilo’s arrangement adds interest while being very sensitive to Holst’s original. I was also very taken with Gunnar Eriksson’s arrangement of a Swedish folksong, The virgin and child. This starts very simply with a solo voice delivering the rather haunting tune. Then Eriksson weaves two Lutheran chorales into the harmony underneath the tune, creating a luminous choral tapestry. Incidentally, this is one of a couple of pieces for which Ted Tregear has provided English words. The star is an arrangement of another Swedish folksong; it’s a very beautiful piece and it’s one of several on this disc that gives us a chance to hear soloists drawn from the choir; the two who sing here are very expressive. Peace, peace is simple yet ravishing.
There are a couple of American pieces on the programme Paul Manz’s E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come has become widely known in recent years and rightly so. Ted Tregear comments perceptively in his notes that Manz finds “a glimmer of expectation … even in the darkness.” It’s a very fine piece and Layton and his choir do it very well indeed. While Manz’s piece was very familiar to me Quem pastores laudavere by James Bassi was one I had not previously heard. It’s a winner. The harmonies are sophisticated but even so the music manages to sound simple. Bassi’s tune is lovely and he cloaks it in beautiful harmonies. The present performance is all that could be desired and when Bassi has the choir humming softly at the end the effect is completely disarming. Ted Tregear revisits his phrase about “a glimmer of expectation” in talking about Jonathan Rathbone’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem, The oxen. This is a touching and gentle setting. Jingle Bells, with which the programme began, is a completely valid expression of the secular fun associated with Christmas but Rathbone’s response to Hardy brings us to the profundity of Christmas and, as such, is a very satisfying way to end this programme.
This is a splendid and varied disc of Christmas music. The performances by the Choir of Trinity College are superb from start to finish. Not only is the singing immaculate at all times but in the more extrovert numbers the choir demonstrates a palpable sense of enjoyment. No fewer than ten members of the choir feature as soloists, often on more than one occasion. Without exception they deliver their solos marvellously. With excellent notes and clear, pleasing sound this is just the sort of present you’d like to find under the tree on Christmas morning. My advice, however, is not to wait for Santa but to treat yourself to it now and enjoy it in the run-up to the festive season.