London Philharmonic/Jurowski – The First Nowell … Christmas Cantata

Vom Himmel Hoch
Vaughan Williams
The First Nowell
Cantata, BWV63 – Christen, ätzet diesen Tag
Une Cantate de Noël

Lisa Milne (soprano), Ruxandra Donose (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor) & Christopher Maltman (baritone)

New London Children’s Choir
London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 December, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski, dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna. Photograph: Sheila RockThis concert brought many delights and surprises as well as consistently fine performances.

If Mendelssohn’s setting is somewhat anonymous it is also skilful and made a jubilant and lyrical opening to this refreshing collection of works. Mendelssohn’s admiration for J. S. Bach (at a time when it was unfashionable) shone through, and the pastoral setting of ‘Be welcome now, O noble guest’, sporting lovely writing for flutes and clarinets proved entrancing with Lisa Milne as the deliverer (in his contribution, Christopher Maltman dignified the occasion), the piece lively, touching and elaborate.

It’s a good time just now to discover less-familiar works by Ralph Vaughan Williams (witness “Folk Songs of the Four Seasons on Albion Records – link below). “The First Nowell” was Vaughan Williams’s final music and, indeed, he passed away before finishing it, leaving Roy Douglas (due to turn 102 a week after this concert) to complete the work. Intended as music for a Nativity play, “The First Nowell” can also be performed as a concert piece, “a suite of arrangements of Christmas carols” for soprano and baritone, chorus and orchestra, lasting close on half-an-hour, faithful transcriptions that could only be by Vaughan Williams, particularly lovely in ‘On Christmas night…’ (for baritone), the crowning glory being ‘The First Nowell’ itself. Vladimir Jurowski has already proved himself a sympathetic interpreter of Vaughan Williams’s music with the Eighth Symphony and plans the fourth, sixth and ninth; he might like to consider the choral “Five Tudor Portraits” as well following this revealing account of “The First Nowell”.

Of similar length was this particular cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an extravagant affair with four solo singers (Ruxandra Donose particularly intense), chorus, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of four trumpets, three oboes and strings plus a continuo section of cello, double bass, bassoon and chamber organ for wide-ranging music that proved sublime, springy and exhilarating.

Honegger’s “A Christmas Cantata” (from the end of his life, he died in 1955), for baritone, chorus, children’s choir and an orchestra of strings, winds and brass with organ (the RFH’s in-house instrument now employed) but no percussion, begins in the depths, the emerging ostinato reminding of the finale of his Symphonie liturgique (Symphony No.3), the children’s choir offering contrasting radiance and innocence. The change to optimism is magically achieved, the music dancing, lullabying, and reaching ecstasy and rapt transfiguration, ending quietly. It’s a great piece and was done proud here.

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