Traditional Carols, arranged for string quartet by Vaughan Jones
Manor House String Quartet [Vaughan Jones & Louise Bevan (violins), Adrian Smith (viola) & Julia Graham (cello)]
Recorded on 4, 5 & 26 April 2011 at MBJ Studios, London
CD No: MANOR HOUSE MUSIC 003 Duration: 62 minutes Reviewed: December 2011
It Came Upon The Midnight Clear and other carols – Manor House String Quartet
Reviewed by Andrew Morris
The market isn't exactly flooded with recordings of string quartets playing Christmas Carols; the Bedfordshire-based Manor House Quartet has clearly spotted the gap and filled it with a disc of festive arrangements. In fact, this is the group’s second collection; the first, I Saw Three Ships, appeared in 2010 and is also reviewed on this site. As before, the arrangements have been made by Vaughan Jones, leader of the ensemble, and prove to be consistently imaginative and energetic.
There are many famous carols among the 23 tracks, including Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Holy Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Vaughan Jones's research has furnished Manor House String Quartet with a great many unusual carols to play alongside the more familiar. In the booklet note he gives a history of each of the pieces. Across the centuries so many of these carols have travelled some way from their original form; and, in more than a few cases, the hands of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp have helped them on their journey. In his arrangements Jones enjoys adding a little extra to old favourites. Jingle Bells becomes a brusque romp, while the introduction to We Wish You a Merry Christmas plays with the first few notes of the tune.
Some of the more unusual carols prove to be the most appealing, the sombre simplicity of the 17th-century Lute Book Lullaby and the punchy treatment of Gaudete! Gaudete! Christus est Natus. A favourite is ‘The Shepherd's Farewell’ from Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ; nicely played, and it's good to hear the musicians trusting in the composer's tempo and sparing us the slow trudge that we often get.
A well thought-through collection, then, but if I have a reservation, it concerns the sound quality. The close and dry acoustic doesn’t do the group many favours, unfortunately, and lays what problems there are with their playing fairly bare. A more resonant space (a church, appropriately), might have knitted the sounds of the players together better.