Here is one of the slickest Christmas discs I have heard in years. Ben Parry’s arrangement of Jingle Bells, witty and performed with a sense of ensemble that would make the Swingle Singers proud, is quite a way to open any disc. It sets the store for a disc that encompasses varied terrain and yet makes for an eminently satisfying whole. Arrangements throughout are consistently imaginative. Try the slow introduction to Robert Rice’s Sleigh Ride, (this piece is billed as “after Leroy Anderson and Ralph Vaughan Williams”), the gentle accelerando at “giddy-up” as the sleigh finds its rhythm and the characterful cry of “Sleigh Ride!” that rounds it off.
My colleague John Quinn is right to identify two major strands to this disc: close harmony “standards” and a Nordic streak. The two complement each other, as we shall see, perfectly.
The well-known Silent Night is superb, especially the contribution of the soloist (tenor, Hiroshi Yamako). But actually it is the entry of the basses around two minutes in that takes it into another realm. There is so much to admire here from the choir: the faultless soprano slurs, for example.
Soloists from the choir are excellent throughout. Ola Gjeilo’s arrangement of Holst’s In the bleak mid-winter features a beautiful, pure soprano solo from Faith Waddell, while Cameron Richardson’s tenor has a reedy purity that appeals.
The inclusion of an American twang to the pronunciation of “White Christmas”—the film is, after all, set in Beverly Hills, LA—is most effective. A pity the arrangement is so short (just one second under two minutes); it is almost as if it seeks to fit in maximal effects, from dynamic surges to bell imitations, into the briefest temporal space. It encapsulates also the feeling of many of these arrangement, that of cozy times by a real fire. That sense of intimate moments of reflection permeates Owain Park’s The Christmas Song.
Peter Gritton’s arrangement of The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” …) is terrifically imaginative, taking the familiar and effectively taking the lines for a sinewy walk for upper voices before the lower voices remind is of the marshmallowy feel of Christmas about a minute in.
The less familiar E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come is a gem (by Paul Manz), heartfelt yet compact; even it, though, comes close to being eclipsed by the real gem that is James Bassi’s Quam pastores laudavere.
Ted Tregear’s booklet notes state that Owain Park’s arrangement of Tomorrow is my Dancing Day is easier to listen to than it is to perform, and that is eminently believable. The arrangement is a sophisticated one, never losing touch with the theme but certainly taking it for a walk into new contrapuntal, and harmonic, territories. Balancing this is Gunnar Eriksson’s superb, darkly Nordic arrangement of the Swedish folksong The Virgin and Child, its close harmonies (particularly in the middle to lower registers) especially effective; Reginald Jacques’ arrangement of Away in a manger seems a half-brother, such is its intimacy. Perhaps the almost mystical bent of The Virgin and Child has seeped through. It acts as an interlude between two dark Nordic offerings, as the next up is the incredibly concentrated Ave maris stella by Bror Samuelson (1919-2008), in which Jonathan Pacey is an immaculate bass identifiably from the core English choral tradition.
The Nordic strand brings many revelations—not in any Biblical sense though, at least not yet — perhaps Harald Sventelius’ The Star bringing the most radiant light. Crowned by the mezzo of Anna Cavaliero and the radiant soprano of Julia St Clair, it offers a highlight in a disc of such high standard that it is difficult to believe that highlights are, indeed, possible. The penultimate offering, a Danish folksong arranged by Michael Bojesen again features the excellent Julia St. Clair before opening out into glorious choral sound.
A magnificent Christmas offering, a real gift from Hyperion to the Festive Season. Difficult to imagine this one being topped.