It must always be problematic when planning a new CD of Christmas Carols: there are several options. It would be easy to assemble yet another programme of well-known tunes that have been sung interminably throughout the years. On the other hand, it would be possible to create an album full of unknown or rarely heard carols. I guess that most choirs will opt for the middle road – old favourites coupled with some new discoveries. This present CD is no exception to this rule. I will mention several highlights.
I was delighted to hear at least a dozen carols that I was unfamiliar with or had ‘forgotten’ and was equally pleased to discover the ‘greats’ such as ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ in its Latin incarnation ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with the magnificent David Willcocks descants and organ accompaniments. Other carols which no Yuletide CD can omit, include ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, complete with RVWs harmonisation.
There are musical connections to the Chapel here too. Thomas Weelkes, apparently often ‘in his cups,’ was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 16th century and Richard Popplewell was (recently) onetime organist and choirmaster. Both have contributed interesting numbers to this CD. Weelkes powerful anthem is derived from a paraphrase of verses from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke: the angels sing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Popplewell’s contribution, ‘Blessed Jesu! Here we stand’ was recently sung at the christening of Prince George on 23 October 2013 and was originally composed for the Duke of Cambridge’s baptism on 4 August 1982. It is a lovely, thoughtful piece that works well as a ‘carol.’
One piece that caught my eye was John Gardner’s delightfully fresh and cheery version of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which owes no debt whatsoever to the well-known tune. It was written for the St Paul’s Girl’s School in 1963.
Less-traditional pieces include Igor Stravinsky’s ‘atypical’ ‘Ave Maria,' Benjamin Britten’s ‘A New Year Carol’ and John Tavener’s ‘The Lamb.’ I have always enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’ to a text by crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. It presents an atmospheric picture of the ‘Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child on a cold and frosty day.
A delight is Michael Head’s ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ which appears to have started life as a song rather than a choral piece. No CD of Christmas Carols would be complete without at least one example from the pen of John Rutter. ‘Sans Day Carol’ was an early arrangement made when he was an undergraduate and was transcribed from the singing of a certain Thomas Beard who lived in Cornwall. It is a variation on ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Herbert Howells’ ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is given a splendid performance that reflects the icy coldness of the night as well as the warmth of the stable.
There are many traditional carols and tunes from English, Welsh, Spanish, French and American traditions. These have been arranged by well-known composers and musicians such as Malcolm Sargent, Charles Wood and George Guest.
The programme comes to a first-rate conclusion with the old favourite of wassailers, ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ arranged here by Andrew Gant, former organist, choir master and composer to Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. It is unusual in that it incorporates other carols into the musical texture.
The ambience of the recording is excellent. Compared to Kings College Cambridge and other competitors for seasonal listening, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal is quite a small group (11 boys and 6 men). This is not a problem, as it gives the performance a genial and intimate feel. The singing is always clear and well-enunciated. The liner notes written by Philip Borg-Wheeler give all the required information about each carol, as well as providing texts and translations.
This is a charming addition to the huge number of Christmas Carol CDs. The added-value is the warm and friendly mood created by this choir, which lends enchantment and magic to these diverse carols.
‘Sans Day Carol’: English Traditional/John RUTTER
‘Mary had a Baby’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’: Elizabeth POSTON
‘Once in Royal David’s City’: Henry John GAUNTLETT/Arthur Henry MANN/David WILLCOCKS
‘Sussex Carol’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Lamb’: John TAVENER
‘A Maiden Most Gentle’: French melody/Andrew CARTER
‘Hosanna to the Son of David’: Thomas WEELKES
‘The Three Kings’: Jonathon DOVE
‘A Spanish Carol’: Spanish traditional/Andrew CARTER
‘Suo Gân’: Welsh Traditional/George GUEST
‘When Jesus our Lord’: Felix MENDELSSOHN
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: English Traditional/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/Thomas ARMSTRONG
‘I Saw Three Ships’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’: Michael HEAD
‘Ding Dong! Merrily on High’: French Traditional/Charles WOOD
‘A New Year Carol’: Benjamin BRITTEN
‘Blessed Jesu! Here we Stand’: Richard POPPLEWELL
‘Ave Maria’: Igor STRAVINSKY
‘Adeste Fideles’: John Francis WADE/David WILLCOCKS
‘Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar’: Peter CORNELIUS/Ivor ATKINS
‘De Virgin Mary’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘The Holly and the Ivy’: John GARDNER
‘A Spotless Rose’: Herbert HOWELLS
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing!’: Felix MENDELSSOHN/David WILLCOCKS
‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’: English Traditional/Andrew GANT
Soloists: Peter Heywood, Cedric Amamoo, Jayden Tejuoso, Matthew Davies, Michael Clayton-Jolly, Harry Fetherstonhaugh, Oliver Davies, Maciek O’Shea, Jerome Finnis, Johnny Langridge, Andrew Tipple. The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal/Huw Williams, Martyn Noble (organ)
Signum Classics SIGCD 460
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.