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ClassicsOnline Home » CHRISTMAS CHORAL MUSIC - A Winter's Light (Vasari Singers, Ford, Backhouse)
The Vasari Singers’ annual carol concerts always provide a warming blend of traditional favourites and less well-known music from all periods and styles. Here, joyous and masterful 16th-century polyphony sits alongside eternally popular Victorian carols, and exquisitely crafted settings by Howells and Walford Davies join works as recent as Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ-child. Bob Chilcott magically superimposes traditional carols with entrancing new material, and no Vasari Christmas would be complete without some close harmony Swingle singing. The Vasari Singers have also recorded Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem (8.573049).
By Lisa Flynn
A Winter’s Light
A Christmas Collection
Over the years Vasari Singers, in its many annual carol concert celebrations, has always strived to imbue its programmes with a warming blend of the traditionally familiar and the readily accessible, less well-known, from all periods and styles of music; so one would quite usually and happily find a piece of sixteenth-century polyphony sitting alongside the most contemporary of material, or a close-harmony, scat number juxtaposed with something stylistically far removed. As with our concert programmes, so with this latest Christmas disc which includes a selection from amongst the many carols that have become firm Vasari favourites over the years.
The journey begins with Bob Chilcott and the first of three extracts from his On Christmas Night, written in 2010 for the University Christian Church, Austin, Texas, who also commissioned it and gave the first performance, conducted by the composer, on 12 December of that year. In the three movements included on this disc Chilcott magically combines his own simple yet exquisitely crafted material with traditional carols: in the first, the start of the Christmas story, This is the truth  is incorporated with another traditional opening carol (not wanting to give the game away too much!). Later a similar approach is adopted in Sweet was the song  where a beautiful Chilcott tune is first given its own life, and then later superimposed on a traditional carol, with entrancing effect. The third extract, Rejoice and be merry , later still on the recording, once again uses the same technique, but here in an exuberant and upbeat form. One final carol from the hand of one of Britain’s finest choral composers of our time is Christmas-tide : another simple but deeply poignant setting of words by the American poet and novelist Janet Lewis (1899–1998), written in 1997.
Two hymns dressed up in modern (but very different) guise are, first, David Willcocks’s majestic setting of Of the Father’s heart begotten : a tune that dates back to as early as the tenth century, but more recognisably from the 1582 Piae Cantiones of Theoderici Petri Nylandensis and which is set to fourth-century words (in translation) by Prudentius. Secondly, the sixteenth-century German anonymous hymn Es ist ein Ros entsprungen , set to the familiar 1599 tune first printed in Cologne in the Speyer Hymnal. In this arrangement by Jan Sandström, the traditional harmonisation of the tune is surrounded in a mist of vocalising voices creating a magically peaceful effect.
From the latter part of the sixteenth century we include two contrasting settings of the Hodie Christus natus est: one from Jan Sweelinck , who spent almost his entire life living and working in Amsterdam, and whose setting combines joyous and masterful homophonic and polyphonic writing; the other from Giovanni Gabrieli , born and raised in Venice and whose music is sharply influenced by his workplace, the magnificent St Mark’s Basilica. He uses the spaces there to create a motet that relies on dramatically contrasting antiphonal effects. One can imagine the glorious sound reverberating around that building as the two choirs come together in a stirring conclusion.
Unashamedly Victorian in sentiment and an oft-requested favourite is Cantique de Noël, better known to us in its English guise, O Holy Night , written by German composer Adolphe Adam in 1847, using an English translation by John Sullivan Dwight of Placide Cappeau’s Minuit, chrétiens. This remains as popular today as it always has been: Vasari Singers’ recording adds to a long list of famous interpretations, including those of Enrico Caruso (1916), Luciano Pavarotti (platinum disc in 1984), Michael Crawford (1993), Mariah Carey (1994), Josh Groban (2002), Whitney Houston (2003), Celine Dion (2004) and Andrea Bocelli (double platinum disc in 2009), to name but a few. Also, to add to this fame, this carol became, on 24 December 1906, the second piece of music ever to be broadcast on radio.
Henry Walford Davies, in his delightful setting of O little town of Bethlehem , sets just verses 1, 3 and 5 of the original poem by the Philadelphian priest, Phillips Brooks (inspired by a visit to the eponymous city in 1865) and as an adjunct sets, as a recitative, two verses from Chapter 2 of St Luke’s Gospel. Similar in mood and spirit is Harold Darke’s beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak mid-winter , which retains its place as one of the most-loved carols of all time and can take pride of place in any Christmas collection. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs was born a year later than Harold Darke and is less well known than his contemporary, but we include The Stable Door  for its simplicity and gentle beauty. It was written in 1933, setting words by Lilian Cox, and is dedicated ‘To the Rev RE Fanshawe’, my maternal grandfather and close friend of the composer.
Herbert Howells was born just four years later than Harold Darke and three years after Armstrong Gibbs, yet belongs to a different generation of composers. Sing Lullaby  is the third in the set of Three Carol-Anthems (the others being Here is the little door and A spotless Rose) written between the years 1918 and 1920. Howells wrote briefly about this carol-anthem: “Here too a poet found the verses for me. FW Harvey, the Gloucestershire poet, friend of Ivor Gurney, had written and published the poem only a short time before this setting was made”.
Pierre Villette studied with Maurice Duruflé, then at the Paris Conservatoire where he was a fellow student of Pierre Boulez; he went on to spend his life as a teacher and composer, living and working first in Besançon and later in Aix-en-Provence. His music is informed by Duruflé, Debussy and Messiaen. Despite its strongly French flavour, it is not widely performed in France; in the United Kingdom it was initially championed by Donald Hunt at Worcester Cathedral before being taken up by choirs throughout the country. Hymne à la Vierge  is perhaps his most popular choral work, but O sacrum convivium, O magnum mysterium and Attende, Domine for example, are also superbly crafted.
Christmas would not be Christmas without a visit to the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, for the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Of most particular interest and most eagerly awaited is the première of the new commissions that are first performed in these services. One such is Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ-child , written for that service in 2009, a gentle, lilting and powerful carol that sets words by GK Chesterton.
And no Christmas would be complete without the appearance of a carol from the pen of John Rutter who has single-handedly done more for redefining and reinventing the Christmas carol than any living composer. Any choral director’s happy headache is which of the many gems to include; here we go with perhaps his best known, the exquisite Nativity Carol .
Finally, no Vasari Christmas could pass without a smattering of close harmony, Swingle arrangements with which to wind up proceedings. Here, from the hand of ex-Swingles Ben Parry and Jonathan Rathbone, we offer familiar tunes in cool new guises with funky rhythms (don’t try tapping your foot to Jingle Bells! ), outrageous keyshifts (count the modulations as well as the carols in the Carol Medley ), unfettered exuberance (Gabriel’s Message ) and just a touch of bitter-sweet in Greg Lake’s I believe in Father Christmas .
Whatever your taste in festive music, we hope that you will find something here to enjoy, to delight, to uplift, to move, to wonder at, to smile at, to be entertained by…and perhaps by which to peel the sprouts and stuff the turkey.
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