Christmas is often called the season of goodwill, so it would be churlish to castigate Hyperion for their blatant bit of mis-packaging. Suffice it to say that this recording is neither devoted to Christmas music nor does it come from St George’s, Windsor. The music is drawn equally from three adjacent seasons of the church’s year—Advent, Christmas and Epiphany—and, probably because of its proximity to Heathrow Airport, the recording was not made anywhere near Windsor Castle, but in two un-connected churches; the accompanied items in Northampton and the unaccompanied ones in Gospel Oak. But it’s not just the wish to avoid ill-feeling at this time of year which prompts me to let this misrepresentation pass; it’s the fact that this is, at any time of the year and in any place, a really lovely recording of some exquisite singing.
Perhaps because they are away from their home ground, James Vivian and his St George’s Chapel choir do not always get it quite right. Philip Ledger’s arrangements of The Sussex Carol and I Saw Three Ships dash along rather faster than is good for them, and while the choir’s diction is never anything but flawless and their precision of articulation magnificent, at these speeds they cannot really bed down into a solid enough tone to make it sound anything other than rushed. Possibly this tendency to hurry saves Alun Hoddinott’s rather heavy-handed Saviour of the World, and while I still have no idea why Mykola Leontovych’s irritatingly insistent Carol of the Bells ever gets performed at all, let alone as frequently as it is, at least this express-train version gets it over and done quickly.
With room and space to relish the music they sing, the St George’s Chapel Choir comes up with some simply enchanting performances. John Gardner’s marvellous Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day comes off magnificently at Vivian’s decidedly stately tempo, while Luke Bond gets it absolutely right in the extraordinarily complex organ accompaniment of David Briggs’ other-worldly (if French-infused) arrangement of Away in a Manger. There is one true star track, in the guise of Adolphe Adam's Cantique de Noël. Tenor Nicholas Madden delivers this with such an unfussed, natural and deliciously fluent voice, oozing musical artistry and wafting the scents of France through an impeccable delivery of the text, and with Bond a model of accompanimental sensitivity, that this has to be my favourite Christmas Track of the year.
Each of the three ecclesiastical seasons is represented by a varied collection of musical items, each beginning with a plainchant antiphon beautifully enunciated by the gentlemen of the choir. A setting based on the opening antiphon by Byrd follows, again delivered by the men with sumptuous stylishness, and then comes a collection of traditional carols in modern arrangements interspersed with original new pieces. Advent also brings us an added extra in the shape of a top-notch account of Gibbon’s classic anthem, This is the Record of John while Epiphany has two gorgeously sung gems in Reginald Jacques’ Gallery Carol and Peter Warlock’s hauntingly beautiful Bethlehem Down.
It may not be quite what it says on the box, but its charms are none the less for that and as seasonal music goes, this new release from Hyperion is almost 70 minutes of pure magic.