The Christmas Story: From Advent to Epiphany and Beyond Told in Chant, Motets, Dialogues, and Traditional Folk Carols
Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier (Conductor)
Recorded at Garnisons Kirk, Copenhagen, Denmark (January, 2011) – 65’
harmonia mundi: HMU 807565 – Booklet with essays and translations in English, French, and German
If you are like me, then you are always on the lookout for new Christmas albums, and better yet, new Christmas albums on SACD. The Christmas Story, Paul Hillier’s latest offering from harmonia mundi, is indeed a special album in luxurious sound. The program is unique enough to be fresh and exciting, with enough familiar tunes to be a thoughtful addition to your holiday season listening.
In his excellent liner notes, Hillier declares that his inspiration for the album was the now-famous service of “Nine Lessons and Carols.” The album is grouped chronologically, taking the listener through the Christmas season from Advent to Epiphany and beyond. Musical styles are juxtaposed, with the primary concern being the flow of the Christmas story. The performances are split between Hillier’s Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, both of whom are outstanding.
The disc opens with a trio of pieces, lead by the plainchant “Rorate coeli desuper,” (Drop down, ye heavens) sweepingly sung with bright tone. The familiar “Veni veni Emanuel,” (O come, o come, Emmanuel) and “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (A rose has sprung up) follow, but in new arrangements by Hillier. The pieces are immediately engaging and set the tone for the rest of the album to follow. This is not a disc to be thrown on in the background and ignored. The arrangements and repertoire thoughtfully highlight the text and narrative of Christmas. Plainchant and early oratorio excerpts alternate with motets and folk tunes in new arrangements, propelling the “action” forward making the entire disc an oratorio of its own.
The most effective transition may be the pairing of William Byrd’s mesmerizing “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery) with Giovanni Franceso Anerio’s “Voi ch’ai notturni rai” (Shepherds, who by the light). An early Baroque dialogue, the piece features soloists as angels telling the joyous news to shepherds, complete with commenting chorus. This is really a jewel of a piece. The pairing with the cherished Byrd motet is dramatically masterful as it brings the listener from a moment frozen in time, to the joyous telling of the Christ child’s birth, to the shepherds abiding in the field. Tracks 11 through 13 are folk songs arranged by Hillier and beautifully conveyed. The bouncing “Dormi, dormi o bel Bambin” (Sleep, sleep, O lovely child) gives way to the stunning “Liebe Hirten, geht’s mit mir” (Dear shepherds, come with me) and effusive “Andachtsjodler.”
The performances are brilliant. The listener may have some trouble distinguishing between Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, but this is a good thing. While Theatre of Voices has only six singers and primarily performs the oratorio dialogues with continuo, both of Hillier’s groups sing with a lean and pleasant tone, dictated by the style they are performing. Ars Nova Copenhagen’s Plainchant is remarkably unified and bright; their Byrd cool, reverent and transparent. Intonation is persistently impeccable, phrasing without artifice, and the singers’ technique is always pleasing to the ear. Hillier’s groups do more than perform music brilliantly; they get out of the way of the music and let it tell the story.
Hillier provides a nice touch by including arrangements of “We three kings,” and “We wish you a merry Christmas.” The selections give the overall disc some variety and warmth. Hillier’s arrangement of “The holly and the ivy” is particularly successful in this regard, which is not to say the disc is in danger of being esoteric. It does demand some attention, but in telling such a familiar and miraculous story with some less-known music, both story and music are illuminated anew.
The SACD sound is spacious and warm. Surround setups will see particular benefit with some very natural reverberation and ambient sound from the rear channels. Recessed voices are always crystal clear and effectively recorded. In the oratorio pieces, such as the Anerio, the soundstage is striking and brilliant, enveloping the listener in a gripping performance.
Overall, this disc is highly recommended as a novel and meaningful Christmas disc for the classical music fan. If you have an SACD setup, you will get even more out of this fantastic disc. It should be added to your collection right away!