Tchaikovsky, Quitter, Humperdinck, Berlioz

COMPOSERS: Berlioz,Humperdinck,Quitter,Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Royal Opera House
ALBUM TITLE: Christmas from Covent Garden
WORKS: Tchaikovsky, Quitter, Humperdinck, Berlioz, traditional carols,
PERFORMER: Chorus & Orchestra of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Mark Ermler/Terry Edwards/Elgar Howarth
CATALOGUE NO: ROH 011 DDD
Marketed under the stress-busting slogan ‘Give the gift of Christmas peace’, Canto Noel is clearly intended to cash in on the success of EMI’s earlier Canto Gregpriano, the two-CD set of Gregorian chant that was passed off as ‘classical music’ and merchandised as sonic valium to spiritually challenged Philistines. The new disc is, primarily, a fair ‘sampler’ of Christmas day ritual at the Spanish monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos – the monks’ punishing and sleep-defying schedule here reduced to an undemanding sequence of soundbites. Unlike the earlier discs, these recordings are only 12 to 14 years old, nicely resonant, and the presentation, with colour photographs of monks and monastery, plus full texts and translations, is helpfully, even humorously, informative.

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By contrast, a rival Philips disc -also entitled Canto Noel (^6 293-2) and clearly intended as a ‘spoiler’ to EMI’s – skimps on presentation and running-time, but scores highly on content: rather than paying lip service to liturgical routine, it presents a narrative of the Messiah’s coming, in crisp, clear performances by what I take to be a small secular choir rather than a large monastic order.

While these two samplers clearly cater to the needs of us sinners, DG’s offering, EternalPeace (445 945-2), is strictly preaching to the converted (no photos, full texts and translations, and two long academic assays). You’ll need an iron will, and a good kneeler, to survive all 12 Responsories for Christmas Matins, sung by the monks of Montserrat, plus the complete Proper for the First Mass of Christmas, intoned by the monks of Miinsterschwarzach. After the smoothness of the monks of Silos, their brothers at Montserrat come across as a huskier bunch of blokes. But if it’s the joys of Christmas you’re after, try last year’s Harmonia Mundi disc, On Yoolis Night (HMU 907099), instead: sung by the all-female vocal quartet, Anonymous 4, the chant emerges with a lightness of soul and sound, and a true maternal glow.

While chant is all about Christ’s power, might and kingship (the Father and Son), carols are all about babies, cribs, shepherds and angels (Mother and Child). It’s the difference between male and female visions, the Church and its flock, ecclesiastical ritual and the popular touch. And it’s that popular touch that so eludes most carol recordings.

Paul Hillier’s selection, Carols From the Old and New Worlds, looks promising, ranging from Henry VIII to Sibelius. But the promise of his new US-based ensemble’s name, the Theatre of Voices, is not borne out in these undramatic performances, nor does the programme offer much rhythmic or dynamic variety to relieve the smooth, synthetic gloss of their close-miked sound.

More natural are the occasional waywardnesses of young soloists of the Harvard University Chorus in O Great Joy!, a nicely varied CD of Baroque Christmas music, interspersing Purcell’s Christmas Anthem and big choral numbers by Albinoni and Charpentier with instrumental sonatas, organ solos and carols proper, all backed by Benefit Street, a period instrument band whose richly stylish, springy playing belies the implied impoverishment of its name.

There’s more stylish playing and a well-balanced programme in Musica Antiqua Praha’s disc, Christmas Music of Baroque Bohemia, where instrumental sonatas by the Viennese court composers Bertali and Poglietti highlight the Italian influences on such key Czech church composers as Michna (Monteverdi-like ritornelli), the choirmaster, hermit and sculptor Rovensky (delicious duets for soprano and recorder) and the Jesuit missionary Bridel (heartfelt songs of simple devotion for congregational use).

Conifer’s Christmas from Covent Garden is a curiously conceived disc purporting to portray the sort of seasonal fare purveyed by the Opera House chorus on its annual excursions to the Piazza.. Snippets of ballet (The Nutcracker) jostle with carol arrangements, operetta, oratorio and opera extracts, and a final, seriously pretentious fanfare by Elgar Howarth.

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The fact is that nostalgia, not novelty, is the key to Christmas and no one this year has tapped that sentimental vein better than Nimbus with its Spirit of Christmas Past, over 70 minutes of the great vocal stars of the 78 era – from Destinn and Lehmann to Martinelli and Ponselle — singing the spots off their modern-day equivalents.