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Christmas with Paul Hillier

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 30, 2011.

available at Amazon
The Christmas Story, Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen,
P. Hillier

(released on September 13, 2011)
HMU 807556 | 65'20"
The gift of CDs of Christmas music is a gauche gesture, because for the most part the music they contain is, at best, passably performed and, at worst, painfully banal. The only exception to this rule is the occasional disc of exquisite historical music performed with such delicacy and musicality that it is impossible to resist. This new recording from Paul Hillier’s two choral ensembles -- Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen -- comes close to passing that bar: a handsomely packaged disc, complete with a thoughtful essay by Hillier and carefully edited texts and translations.

Gregorian chant from the feast of Christmas is a winning choice of programming in these cases, and the selections here, like the introit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Rorate caeli desuper, that opens the disc, and the Christmas introit Puer natus est, are beautifully performed. In fact, more chant would have been preferable than the less successful pieces here, like some rather plain, common carols such as Veni veni Emanuel (sung with perhaps ill-placed vim), We Three Kings (with folksy, almost cheesy guitar accompaniment), The Holly and the Ivy, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Director Paul Hillier has dressed up some of these carols with spicy arrangements that flirt with more dissonant harmonies, like that of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, giving those selections more interest than traditional harmonizations offer.

Best of all are the least familiar carols, like the mysterious German song Andachtsjodler (a meditative repetition of the syllables, “Djo – djo – i – ri,” etc.) and the sweetly simple Barn Jesus i en krybbe lå by Niels Gade, a composer almost always worth hearing, with an unpretentious setting of a text by none other than his Danish compatriot and contemporary Hans Christian Andersen. Howard Skempton’s arrangement of Adam lay y-bounden, pulsing with twitching harmonic movement, is also a worthy discovery.

Most of the best tracks are laid down by Ars Nova Copenhagen, such as the two lesser-known motets by the all but unknown Johann Eccard, especially the sweet Maria wallt zum Heiligtum. The group also contributes a gorgeous rendition of Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium, which provides a convenient yardstick against which to measure Cappella Gloriana’s recent recording of the same work.

Unexpectedly, given the high quality of their previous recordings, the mostly Baroque selections recorded by Theatre of Voices do not sound quite as refined, with the contributions of solo voices less pleasing. These Baroque pieces, in the monodic style of 17th-century opera and oratorio, add a dramatic element to the program but would likely be more pleasing in live performance, where one could see the singers as well as hear them (this disc reflects the Lessons and Carols concerts assembled by Hillier for his groups in recent years).

Biasio Tomasi’s agreeable but plain Dum deambularet sets the story of the fall of Adam and Eve (something that is more proper to Septuagesima and the pre-Lenten season than Advent); likewise, Alessandro Grandi’s Missus est Gabriel is a straightforward setting of the Annunciation dialogue between Gabriel and Mary; and the shepherds go to worship the infant Jesus in Giovanni Anerio’s clear-cut Voi ch’ai notturni rai. With the sound separated from the gestures and characterization of a semi-staged concert performance, there is little in these largely speech-like, no-frills settings to divert the ear.

There are enough reservations about this recording to disqualify it from a full endorsement, but it will undoubtedly make a good gift for someone who would not turn up their nose at traditional carols and yet be open to hearing some more interesting historical music appropriate to the sentiment of the season at the same time.

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