ALBUM TITLE: Collection: A Collection of Children’s Carols
WORKS: Traditional carols and works by Rutter, Bissell, Debussy,
PERFORMER: Toronto Children’s Chorus/Jean Ashworth Bartle
CATALOGUE NO: PCD 2049
Is there a more satisfying Christmas sequence than Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols! It’s a question I often find myself asking as I aurally unwrap my annual stockingful of seasonal CDs, to an increasingly grumpy ostinato of ‘How nice, just what I wanted… another Carlton compilation disc’. Even when, as this year, there is no new recording of the Britten to review, the spirit of Ceremonies past returns to haunt my Christmases present whenever another composer makes so bold as to challenge Britten on his own hallowed ground.
First recorded by the Toronto Children’s Chorus in 1991, and now reissued by Carlton as part of A COLLECTION OF CHILDREN’S CAROLS that ranges from the Huron carol ‘Jesous ahatonhia’ to Debussy’s devastating child’s-eye view of war, ‘Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison’ (with its sadly topical plea for ‘les petits Serbes’), John Rutter’s 1974 ‘Dancing Day” not only apes Britten’s 1942 scoring for treble voices and harp, but includes a new setting of the Marian macaronic, ‘There Is No Rose’ — less modally adventurous than Britten’s transcendental cradle-song, but none the less affecting (making the clap-happy transition from the stifled grief of The Coventry Carol’ into the ‘wrong-note’ waltz of’Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’ all the more of an anti-climax).
Of course, we all have our own musical touchstones where Christmas medleys are concerned. Some swear by Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, others by Hoist’s (to my ears, less affected) Christmas Day, which resurfaces on another Carlton reissue, ST PAU L’s CATHEDRAL CHOIR CHRISTMAS CONCERT. The late Christopher Palmer’s typically eclectic programme mingles rare English chimes — Herbert Howells, Patrick Hadley, Malcolm Arnold (a Fantasy assembled from assorted TV and film scores), Peter Warlock (a mystical Twenties carol, ‘Bethlehem Down’, composed specifically to earn enough money ‘to get suitably drunk at Christmas’) — with bits of Brahms, Bach and Grainger and, as an added touch of tinseltown, a central sequence of’Aw’-inspiring Hollywood kitsch lifted from Miklos Rozsa’s film scores to the Biblical epics Ben Hur and King of Kings, This year’s new release, CHRISTMAS MUSIC FROM ST PAUL’S, on Guild, is worthy but dull by comparison.
For a truly revelatory programme, though (and one that does take Britten’s Ceremony, at least partly, as its cue), try Andrew Parrott’s THE PROMISE OF ACES, which Sony might safely have named ‘Quite Simply the Best Christmas Album Ever’ had not that title already been nabbed by a rival label. A Christmas cornucopia of the timeless and the contemporary, the old world and the new, rich in revealing ‘internal rhymes’ and self-reflective sequences — Britten’s ‘Rose’ counterpointed with an original 15th-century a cappella version; his glistening As Dew in Aprille’ set against versions of the same text by Gustav Hoist (soprano and violin entwined in hushed communion) and the American John Jacob Niles (a real humdinger for two voices and guitars); sections of Peter Maxwell Davies’s severely Sixties O magnum mysterium interspersed with processional verses once sung by the nuns of Chester — Parrott’s collection is also a sly celebration of the central role of women in the Christmas story. Not that you’d know it from the cover, but this is a virtually testosterone-free disc (with only four other men involved besides Parrott): billing the performers as simply the Taverner Consort and Choir gives no indication of either the gender of most of the performers or the staggeringly rich musical variety of their performances. These range from impromptu Irish reels for squeeze-box and fiddle through Emily van Evera’s artlessly alfresco solo version of that other JJ Niles classic, ‘I Wonder as I Wander” (so much more authentic than the synthetic Swingle-style sheen Paul Hillier has his singers adopt on his rival Harmonia Mundi volume, ‘Carols from the Old and New Worlds’), to a final large-scale rendition of the 18th-century evangelical hymn ‘Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending’. With organ going at full blast and the added participation of the Henrietta Barnett School Choir, this sounds for all the world like the final item at Assembly on the last morning before the Christmas hols (though whether Parrott had explained to the girls that Martin Madan originally wrote the hymn for the in-patients at London’s first VD clinic for women, I wonder).
Finally, a quick mention for DIES NATALIS INVICTI SOUS, a debut disc from Rudsambee (an Edinburgh-based a cappella choir whose Gaelic name translates roughly as ‘anything goes’), if only because of the groups promise to reinstate a few old pagan values into the now predominantly Christian symbolism of the midwinter ritual. Sadly, the disc’s title song (Latin for ‘Birthday of the Undefeated Sun’) turns out to be only a tame contemporary carol, kitted out with doggerel verses of the kind you might find advertising a new brand of fruit bread (‘nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon, cloves, promise of sunshine baked into loaves’). Final score: Pagans 0, Christians 1998.