A collection of carols from both sides of the Atlantic including settings by Buxtehude, Cornelius, Gruber, Higdon, Howells, Ives, Mathias, Praetorius, Rorem and Walton
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus
With members of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, Christòpheren Nomura (baritone), John Finney (organ), and the Trinity Handbell Ensemble
Recorded between 11-13 April 2005 at Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts
Reviewed by: Edward Lewis
Reviewed: December 2005
CD No: AVIE RECORDS AV 2078
Duration: 72 minutes
The booklet note written by Grant Llewellyn explaining this particular collection of carols includes the phrase: “So in December last year  I invited the Dinas Powys under 12 soccer team over for suitable refreshments … and then we all set off carolling.” This is not a run-of-the-mill release! Continuing tradition, Llewellyn includes a quote from an 1823 publication – “the singing of carols was continued late into the night” – and thus Llewellyn swaps his 2004 football players for the Handel and Haydn Society, of which Llewellyn is music director and which was founded not far short of 200 years ago.
Among the many over-indulgences Christmas annually brings, the ‘compilation CD’ is possibly the most insidious. Top of 2005’s charts, I suspect, are The Choirboys, about whose mercilessly mercenary, materialistic, mass-marketing-magnate-manufactured mediocrity I shall, of course, say nothing!
“All is Bright” has no connection with such things. This thoughtful bringing together of Christmas-related choral pieces is a refreshing triumph of content and style. Grant Llewellyn has assembled a selection of works ranging from the well known to the newly commissioned, avoiding the seasonal temptation to throw in a handful of cheap crowd-pleasers at the cost of more musically deserving items. The ordering is generally intelligent, both in terms of atmosphere and keys, although the grouping together of four Walton settings risks over-exposure. And there is also David Willcocks’s arrangement of Gruber’s “Stille Nacht”, as musically predictable as the post-Christmas lunch family argument.
One is immediately struck by the self-assured professionalism of the choir. There is copious evidence of extraordinarily well-absorbed technical training, at no cost to musicality. The awkward phrase shapes in Herbert Howells’s “A Spotless Rose” are tenderly and beautifully contoured, and Walton’s notoriously difficult “What Cheer?” is handled in a delightfully light and precise manner, with consonants and dynamics absolutely together.
Tonally, the choir excels, with a strong and deep full-bodied sound when needed, but the ability to contrast with that as required. The texts are generally well expressed with clear enunciation – even in the more difficult settings – such as William Mathias’s gripping “Sir Christèmas”. A fine sense of phrase becomes taken for granted the more one listens, and this shines out brighter than the shepherd-leading star in such gorgeous works as Cornelius’s “The Three Kings” (in which baritone Christòpheren Nomura’s generous, well-controlled timbre is perfectly matched with the choir’s understated texture) and Daniel Pinkham’s “Sweet Music”.
The various instrumental accompaniments leave a varied impression. The use of handbells in a new arrangement of “The Coventry Carol” is haunting and beguiling, and beautifully offsets the brave and direct, rich harmonic language. The strings in Buxtehude’s “In dulci jubilo”, however, are surprisingly harsh and nasal, with tuning that passes straight through ‘authentic’, turns left at ‘awkward’ and approaches ‘awful’.
One of the treasures on this release is Jennifer Higdon’s “O magnum mysterium”, with its ethereal, almost unworldly use of two flutes and glasses. The latter is particularly intriguing, not only for the unusual tones, but because one can also play along between courses at Christmas dinner – the text is intelligently set, the conjured textures imaginative, and with more new settings of this text than festive repeats of 1980s’ sitcoms, it is a genuine pleasure to discover one that spectacularly deviates from the expected, well-tried norm.
Several other pieces deserve particular mention – Walton’s “King Herod and the cock”, Eric Whitacre’s luminescent “Lux aurumque”, and Ned Rorem’s simply beautiful “While all things were in quiet silence”. But more noteworthy than even these is the last item on the disc, commissioned for the recording. Tom Vignieri’s “Hodie Christus natus est” is an impressive and captivating work, with an exciting and challenging organ accompaniment and text-setting that can not fail to draw in the listener. The choir’s performance is evidence, were any needed, that its members are more than up to the challenge of contemporary music, instilling it with a palpable enjoyment and brilliant tonal variations that perfectly match the well-judged proportions of the work.
All this said, there is, unfortunately, a problem – one of pitch and tuning; on quite a few of the tracks the pitch falls faster than snow in the bleak midwinter! The higher soprano lines tend to bend lower, but, more commonly, the problem seems to lie with the inner parts, whose slow downward trend leads to a slightly lacklustre feel at certain moments. To be fair, though, this does little to diminish the overall polished effect, that of a highly capable, musically proficient choir, one more than able to approach any repertoire with confidence, and bring surprise and innovation.
The production values of this issue match the high quality of the singing itself, with none of the all-too-common obvious edits, and a well-judged use of space and positioning within an excellent acoustic, all of which benefits an entrancingly enjoyable and utterly captivating collection.