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O Holy Night
Sam Lewis and Adam Stockbridge (trumpets)
Matthew Fletcher (piano)
Max Pappenheim (organ)
London Choral Sinfonia/Michael Waldron
rec. 2014, St Matthew’s Church, Bayswater, London

This generous programme of mainly traditional hymns and carols is greatly distinguished by the choice of settings for traditional texts and selection of arrangements for familiar melodies. This is not a programme which basks in the simple pleasures of light, charming and popular Christmassy sounds, but one which explores not only the high musical value of many short, seasonal pieces but creates an atmosphere of mystery, awe and intense reflection. This is perhaps best exemplified in Richard Pantcheff’s haunting and deeply atmospheric A Christmas Carol, in which slow, sustained vocal lines waft elusively over an other-worldly organ accompaniment. No boisterous bells, no chirpy chanting, no delightfully ditties, but an intense reflection on the true miracle of the Christmas story, as related in Swinburne’s text. Similarly, Robert Saxton’s setting of his own words, The Child of Light brings a moment of high drama which is entirely in keeping in the context of the programme.

The selected arrangements elevate popular carols beyond their traditional role as comfortable regulars in any Christmas music playlist. John E. West’s arrangement of Silent Night (oddly described on the cover as a “traditional” melody rather than one conceived in 1818 by Franz Gruber) reveals the true beauty of this familiar tune, and is greatly enhanced by Katherine Watson’s gorgeous solo soprano. Jonathan Rathbone’s version of the Coventry Carol brings out the uneasy, almost menacing character of the original. Among other modern settings which, for my money, offer far more in the way of illumination of the original texts than the more familiar ones, are Thomas Wilson’s delectably poised There is no rose, Humphrey Clucas’s deeply sensitive setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem Love Came Down at Christmas, and Carol Canning’s gently unsentimental Lullay my Liking. In any context Paul Edwards’ divine setting of Paul Wigmore’s words No Small Wonder stands out as a moment of matchless beauty; and it does so here in a luxuriously rich performance.

Not for nothing is the London Choral Sinfonia so named. Usually, there is an orchestra to go along with the singers, but for this mostly choral and organ programme Michael Watson marshals his moderate forces (a total of 29 choral voices is listed in the booklet) in a quasi-orchestral manner, drawing inner detail and collective colour from them in a manner more usually associated with an astute orchestral conductor (which he is). The full orchestral resources available here (singers plus four instrumentalists) are only brought into play once - for an extravagant arrangement (by Max Pappenheim) of Adam’s O Holy Night, which some may like a lot more than I do. Suffice it to say, it smothers the original with an opulent musical cloak, complete with a fistful of unexpected musical cross-references, which rather blatantly reveals Pappenheim’s principal role in the world of theatrical music. Elsewhere, the choral sound is robust and full-blooded, unrestrained in the more extrovert items (there is a gloriously vivid performance of Sir Christèmas complete with tremendously explosive consonants and a rhythmic vitality with which William Mathias would surely have been absolutely thrilled) and intensely focused in the gentler ones (has Warlock’s sublime setting of Adam lay ybounden ever been delivered with such superb poise?). All the carols, old and new, are infused with great musicality and consummate artistry.

If there is an area of weakness it is in the hymns. While the function of a choir in hymn singing is to lead the congregation, where there is, as here, no congregation, the choir’s role is rather ambiguous; it’s a bit like taking a double–deck bus to collect chickens for market, pouring inappropriate resources into something which does not require such grand treatment. The London Choral Sinfonia does not, in its outside life, support a congregation in a church setting, and they put too much effort into the hymns, often over-singing them to the extent that they take on a suffocating quality. And while the various last-verse re-harmonisations and descants might work with a larger body of singers, they simply sound artificially forced here. Typical of this problem is this version of that great Advent hymn, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending, complete with fanfare trumpets, which might just succeed in a great choral festival, but sounds horribly overblown here; after all the tune itself is so powerful and strong (despite musical appearances and a name - “Helmsley” – derived from a Yorkshire town, this seems to be of Welsh origin) it really does not need such special treatment.

Marc Rochester

1. Anon, arr. Andrew Carter (b.1939) : O come, O come, Emmanuel [4:00]
2. William Mathias (1934-1992) : Sir Christèmas [1:28]
3. Carol Canning : Lullay my Liking [2:18]
4. Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), arr. John E. West (1863-1929) : Silent Night [3:27]
5. Henry John Gauntlett (1905-1876) arr. Arthur Henry Mann (1850-1929) & David Willcocks (1919-2015) : Once in royal David's City [3:48]
6. Peter Warlock (1894-1930) : Adam lay ybounden [1:29]
7. Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) : Alma Redemptoris Mater [3:07]
8. Richard Pantcheff (b.1959) : A Christmas Carol [6:10]
9. John Francis Wade (c1711-1786), arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015) : O come, all ye faithful [5:07]
10. Thomas Wilson (1927-2001) : There is no Rose [4:46]
11. Robert Saxton (b.1953) : The Child of Light [3:24]
12. Anon, arr. Jonathan Rathbone (b.1957) : Coventry Carol [4:00]
13. Humphrey Clucas (b.1941) : Love Came Down at Christmas [2:21]
14. John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), arr. Martin Neary (b1940) : We Three Kings [3:15]
15. Paul Edwards (b.1955) : No Small Wonder [2:49]
16. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015) : Hark! the herald angels sing [3:12]
17: John Ireland (1879-1962) : The Holy Boy [2:43]
18. Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), arr. Max Pappenheim : O Holy Night [4:27]
19. Gabriel Jackson (b.1962) : Tomorrow Go Ye Forth [2:35]
20. Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), arr. Max Pappenheim : Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending [5:03]

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