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“Be all Merry
Matthew Culloton: ”In Dulci Jubilo”
Eoghan Desmond: ”Be All Merry” [11]
Traditional: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (arr. J. Høybye) – “The Wexford Carol” (arr. D. Earley) [5, 12] – “Auld Lang Syne” (arr. E. Earley)
Elaine Agnew: ”Curoo Curoo”
Timothy Stephens (orch. D. Earley): ”The Adoration of the Magi” [11, 13]
Fionntán O Cearbhaill: ”Suantraí” [1]
Andrej Makor: ”O Magnum Mysterium” [2, 6]
Ivo Antognini: ”Christe, Redemptor Omnium” [7, 11, 12]
Adhamhnán Mac Domhnaill: ”Cró na Nollag” [3, 4]
Mykola Leontovych (arr. D. Earley): ”Carol of the Bells”
Hugh Martin (arr. D. Earley): ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” [9, 10]
Linda Kachelmeier: ”We Toast the Days” [8]

The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, Niamh McCullough [1], Eleanor Coleman [2], Kiri O’Neill [3], Emily Doyle [4] (soprano), Mark Waters [5], Max O’Neill [6], Declan Wildes [7], Ciaran O’Donovan [8] (tenor), Simon Morgan [9], Ivan O’Neill [10] (baritone), Irish Chamber Orchestra, Katherine Hunka [11] (violin), Aoife Nic Athlaoich [12] (cello), Tristan Russcher [13] (piano), Desmond Earley (conductor)
Recording: Blackrock College, Rock Road, Blackrock County, Dublin, Ireland (February 28 to March 1, 2020) – 49’49
Signum Records SIGCD643 – Booklet in English

The holiday season takes on an Irish pulse with “Be all Merry”, a new album of 14 favorites and soon-to-be favorites for Christmas and New Year’s presented by the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, Desmond Earley, artistic director, with instrumental contributions from the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Religious hymns such as “The Wexford Carol” rub elbows with “We Toast the Days” while familiar titles with new arrangements (“God Rest Ye Merry”) flank songs with mellifluous Celtic titles (“Cró na Nollag”). The album is remarkable for its embrace of new composers from around the world, whose modern sensibilities merge with the traditional words of winter carols and give us new insight into lyrics we have known and loved all our lives.

The settings and singing are 21st century fresh and a welcome way to ring out the old and look forward to a year of promise and potential. At the same time, the liner notes clearly acknowledge the strains and stresses of Covid pandemic, weighing heavily on performing artists and audiences alike.

The album gains its name from the carol, “Be All Merry”, composed specifically for the Scholars, which actually is more circumspect and thoughtful than the party-going title would suggest. It’s a lilting tune, but with a dark color, suggesting through voices and the skipping rhythm of a violin that merriment and circumspection can go hand-in-hand.

More exuberant is the Choir’s rendition of the familiar “God Rest Ye Merry”,, with agile singing and a light touch. The traditional lyrics of “Curoo, Curoo” get a modern musical lift from Belfast composer, Elaine Agnew, while Matthew Culloton, a conductor and composer from Minnesota, offers a fresh spin on “In Dulci Jubilo”. Slovenian composer Andrej Makor is represented in a new setting of “O Magnum Mysterium”: soft, hushed, and mystical, as it should be.

But all is not sweetness and light. W.B.Yeats’ enigmatic poem, “The Adoration of the Magi”, has a provocative edge, and though labeled here as a prayer, is not of the conventional Christmas-carol variety. Many a class on Irish literature has wrestled with the meaning of this deeply searching short verse, along with its twin, “The Second Coming.” Some evocative playing by Katherine Hunka, violin, and Tristan Russcher, piano, contribute to the mysterious mood.

At the other end of the spectrum is Swiss composer Ivo Antognini’s “Christe, Redemptor Omnium”. This work, derived from the text of an ancient chant, has a clear spiritual orientation, though I found the overall feel of the work a bit sweet for my taste. Still, there is a place at the table for the occasional sugary treat, and this selection has a pure, undiluted beauty that will appeal to most listeners.

The singers and instrumentalists throughout the album maintain a high level of musicianship and a cheerful engagement with their material. Earley’s direction evoked crisp ensemble singing in which the lyrics and melodic lines blend artfully to create moods of both merriment and devotion. Fans of the many public television specials featuring Celtic artists will treasure the beautiful solo and ensemble voices in many of these selections, especially those in Gaelic.

I had only a couple of very minor reservations about the album as a whole. The cover suggests this is a collection of old traditional tunes, but in fact, the album contains new work by some exciting composers from around the world. It was only when I went through the album for a second time that I realized the names listed beneath the song titles were composers, not performers.

Another very small detail was the inclusion of a secular song from the 1940s, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, in an album consisting mostly of sacred music (plus a couple of New Year’s-related songs). It just seemed out of place. I did enjoy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, arranged by Desmond Earley, as a stand-alone track, and it would be delightful to hear an entire album of Christmas music from classic films arranged for this choir by Mr. Earley.

All in all, this is a most attractive and engaging holiday album with extra praise for showcasing new music that is sure to have a wide appeal.

Linda Holt




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