Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity

Gerald Finley, baritone
Ruth Holton, soprano
Nicholas Sears, baritone
The Cambridge Singers, City of London Sinfonia / John Rutter CBE

Collegium COLCD 106
63 min 35 sec, DDD  (Full libretto provided)

Five stars

This is what Christmas music really is:  Beautifully worshipful compositions reflecting upon the birth of Christ, and nothing less.  And because some of John Rutter’s own music is here, it also serves as a unique, tangible profession of his faith.  If you don’t have any of John Rutter’s other CDs, buy thiChristmas Night: Carols of the Nativitys one and let it be your springboard to purchasing his other recordings.

The highly-respected John Rutter (b. 1945, London) is primarily a composer and conductor, known for writing choral music on both small and grand scales.  In the mid-1970s, he was Director of Music at Clare College, where he had been a student and whose choir he directed in broadcasts and recordings.  He gave up his post there to compose his own music and to form the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording.  Likewise, he started Collegium Records to present his recordings.  This one, like his others, contains the text, composition and arrangement credits for and excellent historical notes about each track.

The Cambridge Singers’ performance here is somewhere between flawless and outstanding, faithfully captured by engineer Campbell Hughes and producer Jillian White.  The reduced number of musicians here is entirely appropriate; there is no loud fanfare or bombast, and therein lies one of the endearing qualities of this disc, because Rutter programmed so thoughtfully and carefully.  Fifteen a capella pieces are punctuated by seven with orchestral accompaniment, more than ably provided here by Rutter’s frequent collaborators, the City of London Sinfonia.

Among the a capella highlights on this disc are the two opening tracks, beginning with the familiar German carol in dulci jubilo, arranged here by Robert Lucas Pearsall.  The 15th century Adam lay ybounden has been set to music several times; Rutter chose the one by legendary English choirmaster and organist Boris Ord.  Herbert Howells’ setting of A spotless rose is a fine example of the wonderful British flavor on this disc, echoed by the two Charles Wood arrangements, Once as I remember and A virgin most pure.  There is also a particularly beautiful J.S. Bach arrangement of Samuel Scheidt’s carol O little one sweet.  Rutter’s setting of There is a flower features soprano soloist Ruth Holton, who delivers a very enjoyable balance between the boy-chorister characteristic and her own feminine voice.

There are four particularly beautiful collaborations between choir and strings here:  Dr. Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter has remained very popular in Great Britain over the last few decades in part because of the gentle arrangement and because Christina Rossetti’s text considers Christ’s birth with a child-like simplicity.  Sir Richard R. Terry’s lovely and dignified Myn lyking is a Tudor-flavored setting of a 15th century text.  The segue from the violins to the women choristers entering the first verse evidences Terry’s thoughtful string scoring, duplicated later by the celli and the men.  John Rutter adapted a melody from Thoinot Arbeau’s late-16th century Orchésographie and wrote lyrics and a new score, nicely resulting in this disc’s title track.

Especially deserving of your attention is Patrick Hadley’s quietly sparkling I sing of a maiden; Hadley’s brilliant vocal scoring and gorgeous supporting orchestration remind of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, flowing beautifully and seamlessly between phrases.  Given a superlative performance here by the Singers and Sinfonia, this might be the best track on the disc.

Two other notable Rutter works are here too, reminiscent of both a “contemporary” style and that which sounds at least a hundred years older – testimony to Rutter’s compositional abilities.  Among the former is his 1984 Candlelight carol, and representing the latter is the final track on the CD, his 1963 Nativity carol, both accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.  As with the Patrick Hadley, Nativity carol epitomizes the celebration of Christmas:  Quiet, worshipful and eloquently simple reflection upon the birth of Christ, beautifully enough to bring tears to your eyes.

My recommendation here is awfully simple:  Buy this CD.  Five stars, and “desert island” status for this recording.

Contents:

  1. In dulci Jubilo  (3:12)
    14th century German carol
    transl. and arr. R.L. Pearsall (1795-1856)
  2. Adam lay ybounden  (1:07)
    text, 15th century
    Boris Ord (1897-1961)
  3. Christmas Night  (4:00)
    Thoinot Arbeau (16th cent)
    text and arr, John Rutter (1945-)
  4. Once, as I remember  (2:28)
    text, G.R. Woodward (1848-1934)
    music, Italian 17th cent
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  5. A spotless Rose  (2:45)
    text, 14th century
    music, Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
  6. In the bleak mid-winter  (4:32)
    text, Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)
    music, Dr. Harold Darke (1888-1976)
  7. There is a flower
    text, John Audelay (15th cent)
    music, John Rutter (1945-)
  8. The cherry tree carol  (4:04)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  9. I wonder as I wander  (2:52)
    Appalachian carol
    coll. John Jacob Niles
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  10. Candlelight carol  (4:06)
    John Rutter (1945-)
  11. O Tannenbaum  (1:58)
    text, Ernst Anschutz (1824)
    German traditional melody
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  12. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day  (1:55)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  13. A virgin most pure  (2:38)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  14. I sing of a maiden  (2:54)
    text, 15th century
    music, Patrick Hadley (1899-1973)
  15. Lute-book lullaby  (2:05)
    William Ballet (17th cent)
    arr. Geoffrey Shaw
  16. The three kings  (2:16)
    Peter Cornelius (1824-1874)
    arr. Ivor Atkins (1869-1953)
  17. Myn lyking  (2:35)
    text, 15th century
    music, Sir Richard R. Terry (1865-1938)
  18. O little one sweet  (3:15)
    Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
    arr. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
  19. All my heart this night rejoices  (2:12)
    text, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
    transl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
    music, Johann Georg Ebeling (1637-1676)
  20. I saw a maiden  (2:52)
    text, 15th century
    Basque Noël
    arr. Edgar Pettman (1865-1943)
  21. Away in a manger  (2:12)
    text, published 1865
    music, W.I. Kirkpatrick (1832-1921)
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  22. Nativity carol  (4:20)
    John Rutter (1945-)
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One Response to “Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity”

  1. Linville Doan Says:

    Another great review and an album I tried to find today at a store in Mexico City but it’s a department store so doesn’t have a huge selection…large but naturally heavy on the Spanish CDs. As a skeptic I don’t buy the nativity story but grew up with Christmas traditions and love most of the songs. Agree with George Carlin that the best thing to come out of religion is the music. I know you don’t support this view, but have to share that I am moved by the simplicity and beauty of the perfectly matched lyrics and music for “In The Bleak Mid-Winter.” Was introduced to this late in life when directing choirs at Anglo-Catholic St. Paul’s Church-on-the-Hill in St. Paul. Rutter is unmatched in contemporary choral writing as you have described. Grew up with Robert Shaw Christmas album and it still is my favorite…Like most of ‘Warland Singers’ but would like to know what you think of his interpretations and the choir’s performances. Personally, I’d like to see more passion in some of his interpretations. Thanks for informing me, again!

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