An English Christmas–From Germany

Review by: David Vernier

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Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 9

An entire program of English music recorded by a German choir doesn’t happen all that often, and a disc of “very English” Christmas repertoire may be rarest of all. However, the top-tier Stuttgart-based SWR Vokalensemble is one group for whom this sort of thing is not so unusual. In fact they’ve not only recorded several discs that feature works by British composers such as Britten, MacMillan, and Vaughan Williams (including his rarely recorded Mass in G minor); they’ve gone where even American choirs fear to tread, recording the complete choral works of Elliott Carter(!), ten of Ives’ Psalm settings, and a disc of American works that includes pieces by Cage, Reich, and Feldman.

The program itself, chosen with obvious care by one who knows his way around the repertoire, is marked by first-rate performances that stand solidly alongside similar offerings by this ensemble’s “native” British counterparts. As good as the program and performances are, potential listeners may find the disc’s curious, cursory title misleading: “Christmas Carols” does not accurately describe the program at hand. While the music is almost exclusively Christmas-themed, only perhaps three of the 19 selections (to be generous) could be labeled as “carols” in the traditional sense. Although the liner notes do include a very brief but informed history of the true carol, our attention is quickly directed to the “carol” as it’s come to be identified via inclusion in the popular annual carol service at King’s College, Cambridge: that is, virtually any choral piece–original or arrangement–with a sacred, Christmas-centered text. The programming here all makes sense when you know that conductor Marcus Creed is not only British, but was a student and former singer at King’s College.

Just looking at the list of composers, most of whom are as English as they come–Boris Ord, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, David Willcocks–and the works at hand, each one ingrained in the very soul of every English-speaking, Christmas-music-loving listener–sets you up for what you hope will be an hour of pure pleasure, born of the special traditions of a season that is uniquely associated with its music. And, be it from Germany or Lower Slobovia, it doesn’t matter: this program does not disappoint.

Whether you choose this for the iconic repertoire–Ord’s Adam Lay Ybounden; Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin; Howells’ A Spotless Rose; Thomas Ravenscroft’s Remember O Thou Man; David Willcocks’ Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day; Elisabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree; Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter–or just for the world-class singing (hopefully both!), you can be assured of a listening experience that will endure many hearings throughout the entire season–and the next. This choir knows the music well and obviously enjoys singing it, demonstrating a mastery of both language and style.

The program’s one non-English-language work is Robert Parsons’ Latin-texted Ave Maria–a most welcome inclusion of one of the 16th century’s greatest masterpieces, and a highlight of the disc. Another plus: the all-too-rare inclusion of a list of publishers of each work (choral directors, take note). Highly recommended.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Christmas Carols

Original works & arrangements by Byrd, Holst, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Ravenscroft, Gibbons, Parsons, Poston, Ord, Willcocks, others

    SWR Vokalensemble, Marcus Creed

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