After seventeen years, the annual cycle for Classical Source is quite well understood. The Proms season is at the core of our summer schedule, with spring and autumn concerts from London and New York venues as bookends. Recordings are sent to us for most of the year but in the weeks running up to Christmas this can be multiplied ten-fold as record labels battle to get their latest project reviewed while vying valiantly with self-funded recordings, quite often of choirs and their festive celebrations.
Having been a chorister for all of the past thirty-eight years, I have grown up with the Carols for Choirs books, now available in five volumes, which have become the de facto yuletide standard for Anglican worship in the UK. The ‘green’ and the ‘orange’ books (volumes 1 and 2), each containing fifty Christmas carols, get dusted off each year, first for Advent and then for a variety of services and grand civic occasions – where ‘Once in Royal’ must always start and ‘Hark! The herald’ must end – and some more intimate.
In 2011, to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of the first publication, Bob Chilcott was asked to edit the fifth volume, which sported a suitably golden cover. He cast a fresh eye over the familiar, with arrangements and brand-new compositions by Chilcott himself, much as Sir David Willcocks, Reginald Jacques and John Rutter had done earlier. A delightful compendium of carols is now waiting to be sung by choirs up and down the land and further afield, and yet, with limited exceptions, recordings of the same carols in the same arrangements drop through the office door each year.
However good the old arrangements are – and they are very good – there should be a place for the new. The snappily entitled Christmas from Selwyn – a new release from the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge – does well to throw away the rulebook, with a refreshing version of ‘Ding! Dong! Merrily on high’ by Mack Wilberg and an interesting take on ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ arranged by the choir’s director Sarah MacDonald. However, tradition has a vice-like grip and the disc respectively starts, and ends, with Willcocks’s versions of ‘Once in Royal’ and ‘Hark! The herald’.
In whatever way you choose to receive carols – at a church, from singers at your front door, on the radio or as-heard in shops, please do so with a smile on your face and a thought for the choirs.
May I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.
The Classical Source