Karolju – Christmas Music

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Lutoslawski,Rodrigo,Rouse
LABELS: RCA
WORKS: Rouse: Karolju; Lutoslawski: Polish Christmas Carols; Rodrigo: Retablo de Navidad
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
CATALOGUE NO: 88697115612

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Christopher Rouse’s Karolju, first performed in Baltimore in 1991, is a rum affair: a suite of fake Christmas carols.

That is, it consists of newly written choral carols in various simple national styles – French gigue, Russian dirge, Czech polka, Italian pastorale and so on – with poster-paint orchestrations. And not only is the title a made-up word, but the composer’s texts, in eight different languages, are meaningless apart from the odd seasonal phrase.

That’s hardly an incentive to clear enunciation or clear recording. And indeed the piece sounds like nothing so much as half-heard Christmas background music in some upmarket department store. At least there are genuine folk melodies in Lutoslawski’s Polish Christmas Carols, imaginatively arranged for unison high voices and chamber orchestra.

The quick numbers are bright enough here, but some of the slower ones sound droopy and uninterested. Surely a British choir would have communicated better in English translations than in carefully learned Polish?

Anna Stéphany contributes some solos to this truncated set (14 out of 20), and comes appealingly to the fore in the three solo villancicos from Rodrigo’s Christmas cantata Retablo de Navidad – including the familiar, lovely ‘Pastorcito santo’.

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It’s too little, too late, though, to rescue this disappointing disc. Anthony Burton