Summary for the Busy Executive: Superior program.
Christmas brings out the best and worst in record labels. Does anybody over the mental age of eight really want to spend Christmas with the Chipmunks or Don Ho? You can find, of course, classical kitsch equivalents, usually involving a tonnage of opera stars in overblown, overdone, over-reverbed super-glam arrangements of essentially folk music – like putting a Rolls-Royce grille over the front end of a Civic.
On the other hand, you also get stuff like this program of Christmas music by British composers of the conservative Modern wing, much of it written for amateur chorus. For me, the outstanding items come from Holst, Howells, and Finzi, although every piece is attractive and well-made.
Holst's Christmas Day resembles Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols. However, it differs in that it's more piecemeal, less symphonically integrated. It uses the following carols: "In dulci jubilo," "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" "The first Nowell," and a Breton carol, "Come ye lofty, come ye lowly." Most of them appear in sequence. Most put in repeat appearances. Holst never wastes a note and perfectly harmonizes the tunes. There's just enough to make the intended effect and no more. Thus, you notice it when this general strategy changes. "The First Nowell" appears as augmented counterpoint to the Breton carol – appropriate, since it, too, comes from France. It returns as counterpoint to the final appearance of "God rest ye merry." All in all, a lovely, unpretentious piece.
To my mind, Howells brought the English Edwardian choral style to its height, although he did it using modern harmonies. As a youth, Howells heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, which hit him upside the head and changed the direction of his music. He became interested in modal writing although he recognized that he had to adapt it to modern musical circumstances. His idiom combines modalism with post-Wagnerian chromaticism. The two pieces here count among his most performed. For various personal reasons, Howells produced a great deal of music for liturgical use, specifically for church and cathedral choirs. Although not easy, they lie within the capacity of a good church choir. "Here is the little door" takes a modest poem by Frances Chesterton (wife of G.K. Chesterton) and lifts it to the realm of great art. The main theme is in the Dorian mode. "A spotless Rose" sets an English version of "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" by hymn-writer Catherine Winkworth. Howells's setting strongly evokes Vaughan Williams.
Another composer strongly impressed by Vaughan Williams's music, Gerald Finzi concentrated largely on vocal and choral music. He became one of the great English songwriters, a kind of English Fauré. He read widely and chose from among the greatest English poems, whether "song-poems" or not, like Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. It often took him years to complete a work, since he had a horror of "forcing" anything and kept worrying about the "inadequacy" of his technique. Although it cost him the possibility of a large catalogue, most of his stuff is of very high quality and furthermore reveals an original, immediately identifiable voice. Unfortunately, about the time when his self-doubts disappeared, he was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and he died relatively young, in his fifties. In terra pax, one of his last scores, sets a poem by Robert Bridges, an agnostic's meditation on Christmas, with St. Luke's angel's appearance to the shepherds. A tuneful melodic line takes us "naturally," seamlessly through the narrative with music of rare beauty.
Kenneth Leighton's output splits into "accessible" and "hard." He began in a Waltonian idiom but moved through a restless patch – taking up Berg, Boulez, and Messiaiën – where he tried to find a personal voice. He wound up with a tonal idiom. A visionary aspect glows through his output, especially in his large number of religiously inspired works. "A Hymn of the Nativity" sets a poem by 17th-century Catholic Richard Crashaw. Like most of Leighton, it strives to use only the necessary notes, but it takes a decent choir to get through it, especially one that can keep pitch. Religious intensity marks it throughout.
The rest of the program addresses the capabilities of amateurs, even children. The Welsh William Mathias is represented by two items. "Sir Christémas" belongs to the mini-cantata Ave Rex, while "A Babe is Born" appeared as a fugitive piece. Both are vaguely Waltonian. John Joubert's "There is no rose" competes with Britten's masterly setting in A Ceremony of Carols, to its disadvantage. Peter Warlock's 3 Carols sets three traditional texts. Warlock achieved a distinct song idiom that owed little to Vaughan Williams or to Parry and Stanford. Two of the carols dance, while the central carol "Balulalow" (also set by Britten), sings tenderly. John Rutter's "What sweeter music" counts as one of his biggest hits, thanks in no small part to its use as a Volkswagen commercial. I'm not wild about Rutter's stuff, but I have to admit this setting of Robert Herrick is at least pretty. John Gardner's "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day," one of his hits, sets the amateur choir the challenge of lively mixed rhythms and unusual meters. Once they master it, choirs enjoy singing it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams's Folk Songs of the Four Seasons appeared late in his output, in 1950. He wrote it for girl (or female) chorus and orchestra. Much simpler than the slightly later Christmas cantata Hodie, it exemplifies his belief that a composer should write good works for all levels of a musical culture, not just the tippy-tOp. The CD presents the final movement, "Winter," which sets the carols on Vaughan Williams's Christmas juke box (he set all of them more than once): "We've been the while a-wandering," "Wassail Song," "In Bethlehem city," and "God bless the master of this house." I'd previously heard this in churches at Christmas with piano accompaniment only, so it was a particular pleasure to hear it with the orchestra.
For me, the program sells this disc, but the performances are very good. The City of London Choir is a high-quality community group, lacking only the fullness of tone of more or stronger voices. Julia Doyle and Roderick Williams (one of my favorite baritones) shine in the Finzi. Wetton and Bournemouth deliver professional readings. If you think you'd punch a hole through the wall if you heard "The Little Drummer Boy" one more time, Dr. Schwartz offers the following prescription: take one of these and decompress.
Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.