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The Sacred Flame - Cambridge Singers   


I'll be honest, my mental image of the Cambridge Singers is of rather heavy handed singing, suitable for John Rutter's jolly carols, but not exactly competition for the Sixteen. However in this collection of Renaissance and Baroque they have proved they can do subtlety too. The Monteverdi pieces bounce along with just enough lightness. There's a wonderful range of the best music here. Gesualdo's O vos omnes, for example, is full of 'he can't do that!' moments - it's electrifying. Buxtehude's chunky and jubilant Magnificat adds a little light relief among the exquisite likes of Victoria and Josquin Desprez... and it runs through neatly through Schütz to the (relatively) trendy 'new' music of Mr Bach.


All in all a great collection.


 

Christmas CDs

There comes a point where that Christmas spirit just takes over, and you want some Christmas music in your car, about the house or whatever to get into the mood. Here's your chance with some recommended Christmas collections... (If you want books of Christmas Carols, click here, Christmas Carol sheet music here, and for two CDs of carol accompaniments without voices click here)

Carols from King's   

In the UK, Christmas music and the sublime chapel of King's College, Cambridge are powerfully linked. The service of 9 lessons and carols at King's on Christmas Eve is still the model for practically everyone else, and the King's choir certainly knows how to deliver with these very traditional carols. Inevitably starting with Once in Royal David's City (another King's tradition), there are all the standards - Hark the Herald, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town and so on - with a few slightly more sophisticated numbers - Adam Lay Ybounden, Quem Pastores etc.. Great basic Christmas CD - but for a little more, consider the two CD Noel - Christmas at King's.


 

Noel - Christmas at King's   

King's once more, but a total of 36 tracks to Carol's from King's 26. Here it's the second CD that starts with the inevitable Once in Royal David's City and once again all the very traditional favourites are included, but there's a chance to expand the "extras" options to include the likes of the Sussex Carol, Balulalow and Tchaikovsky's impressive Crown of Roses, none of which are on the single CD offering. Probably the best choice for a King's Christmas.


 

A Ceremony of Carols - Westminster Cathedral Choir  

Not everyone likes Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, but if you do (and we do) it's an electrifying experience, from the haunting fade in of the processional through the wonderfully spiky music in some carols, suggestive of ice and snow, and the simple beauty of some others. Makes the most of boys voices, and as usual Westminster do an excellent job. There are samples on the Amazon.co.uk site, so if you don't know the piece, have a listen. The CD includes for good measure Britten's delightful Missa Brevis and one or two shorter numbers. Highly recommended.


Christmas Night - Cambridge Singers  

The theme of this collection is carols of the nativity, though it's fairly loosely interpreted as (for instance) most of Adam Lay Ybounden is about Adam taking the apple, and the Virgin Mary being heavenly queen. With a fair number of the pieces coming from the Carols for Choirs books they'll be a pleasing collection for many choir members, ably sung by Rutter's pet choir. Exceptions to the C for C bunch include Howells' brilliant Spotless Rose and a couple of relatively recent Rutters. Some of the less frequently recorded C for C pieces include Myn Lyking, Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day and Bach's brilliant short, O Little One Sweet. Less good news from our viewpoint is the inclusion of Cornelius's Three Kings. It may be popular but it's also horribly icky, messes up a perfectly good chorale and doesn't even work musically. On the other hand, it's only  one of 22 tracks, and if you like it then it's a rare opportunity to have it on CD! Amazon.com has samples of practically every track, so worth having a look there even if you want to buy it from Amazon.co.uk


 

Christmas Proclamation - St. John's College, Cambridge.

Not really a Christmas album, but it does feature his Christmas Proclamation, and is a chance to hear Tavener at his best. This incredible value for money CD (at the last check only £4.99 in the UK) includes his two best-known pieces, the stunning The Lamb, as featured in the recent Orange mobile phone TV ads, and Song for Athene, which was used at Diana, Princess of Wales' funeral. But there's plenty more too - try, for example, Funeral Ikos - it's a wonderful CD, with a thoughtful performance from the choir of St. John's College, Cambridge. Note US edition has different cover.


The John Rutter Christmas Album   

Rutter and Christmas go together like... well, Rutter and Christmas. His carols are now solid favourites in the Christmas repertoire, and often rightly so. This album contains 23 tracks, most Rutter originals, but some Rutter arrangements of traditional tunes. The performance by the Cambridge Singers, Rutter's pet choir, is fine - they're bigger than a typical cathedral or church choir, so can seem a little heavy handed with some music, but not here. You'll find the obvious numbers like Shepherd's Pipe Carol alongside everything from Candelight Carol to What Sweeter Music, both reflectively pleasant. Go on, admit it, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a bit of Rutter.


O Magnum Mysterium - Polyphony   

One of our favourite Christmas CDs. There are the modern classics like Howells' A Spotless Rose and Warlock's Bethlehem Down, but also many less familiar but still superb carols, from those two composers, Kenneth Leighton, Richard Rodney Bennett and more. Also a few plainsong numbers thrown in as leaven. If you like 20th century music, this is a must.


The Mystery of Christmas - Elora Festival Singers

A refreshingly different collection from the singers at the Christmas festival in Elora, Canada. There sound to be rather more singers than you would get in a typical cathedral/college recording, but the sound is still fine and well performed. If you haven't heard this choir before you may have doubts, but I defy anyone not to fall in love the opening Huron Carol, a traditional Canadian number in a wonderful Vaughan Williamsesque arrangement. The collection does have some old favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful, the Darke In the Bleak Mindwinter and Ding Dong Merrily (and a funky Silent Night arrangement), but the majority of carols here are both less well heard and excellent. There's a great collection of four pieces from Poulenc, a lovely floating piece called The Three Kings from Healey Willan, Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin, Tavener's God With Us and more. Excellent - and what's more, excellent value too.


Sir Christemas - Ex Cathedra  

An intriguing mixture of old and new, bound to delight anyone interested in good church music. The opener is Mathias's lively and bouncy Sir Christemas with its exclamations of "Noel!" This is followed by one of Bach's funkier chorales, then we're back to modern with the truly scrumptious No Small Wonder by Paul Edwards before plunging back for the anonymous 16th century Sweet Was the Song. And so it continues for 22 excellent tracks. There are no real duds here, while real gems include Tchaikovsky's back-of-the-neck-tingling When Jesus Christ (aka Legend or Crown of Roses) and Tavener's enigmatically beautiful The Lamb. One or two slight surprises - the king of modernish Christmas, John Rutter is bizarrely represented by his A Gaelic Blessing - not what we'd call a carol - and amongst such excellent choir pieces, it seemed unnecessary to include a solid Victorian congregational choir carol like Goss's See Amid the Winter Snow - even so a great Christmas CD. The Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra make the most of an uninspiring acoustic, thanks to their clean, crisp sound.


 

Vaughan Williams - Hodie (Assorted)   

Not a conventional Christmas carol album, but containing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ two carol-based orchestra-and-voices pieces. Of the two, Fantasia on Christmas Carols is my favourite. Here RVW is doing what he did best, taking folk songs and giving them lush voice-and-orchestral variations. The longer Christmas cantata Hodie is not one of his greatest pieces (not a patch on In Windsor Forest), but it is fine and has some enjoyable (and occasionally startling) moments. This is not a new recording - pretty obvious when you consider soloists include Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk - but the 1960s performances from Guildford Cathedral choir & string orchestra/Bach Choir, Westminster Abbey and LSO respectively make a good fist of it. What’s more it’s a bargain price at under £5, so what is there to lose?


Incredible Christmas Album (Assorted)   

There's something about Christmas that stretches the musical bounds - it's very difficult not to be sentimental about Christmas music, and even the most hard hearted purist may be inclined to go a bit mad when buying Christmas CDs. This is definitely one for those mad moments. It's a big double album with a total of 50 tracks, combining the very traditional (particularly the second disc which is solidly trad) from Adeste Fideles to In Dulci Jubilo, with rather kitsch once popular stuff (Winter Wonderland by Ella Fitzgerald, White Christmas by Bing Crosby, Sleigh Ride by Boston Pops - you get the idea). A lot of the traditional stuff is by Cambridge College choirs, though you will find the likes of Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Anthony Way creeping in. It's not to everyone's taste, but if you like a gloriously nostalgic Christmas musical brew, this is a superb choice.


 

Fear and Rejoice, O People - St. John’s College Cambridge

The best collection of modernish carols we've seen in a while, with a good mix of really top notch numbers, from the moving Howells Sing Lullaby that opens the disc to Tavener's hypnotic A Hymn to the Mother of God at the end. Generally the performances from St John's College Cambridge under Christopher Robinson are excellent, though the solo trebles are perhaps lacking in a little welly. I was also a little puzzled by the gaps at the ends of lines in Vaughan Williams' The truth sent from above which aren't in the music and John's doesn't have the acoustic to cover them. The inevitable Rutter is one of his most subtle, There is a flower. There are two of Robinson's own carols - I preferred his traditional Hereford Carol, though Fear and rejoice is interesting. Two lesser known treats are Geraint Lewis's Howells-like A little hymn to Mary and Arthur Oldham's Remember, O thou man, which has become one of my favourite choir carols. There's also, slightly puzzlingly, a Magnificat - but it is Dyson's haunting setting in F, so forgivable. Overall a brilliant addition to your carol collection.