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Sing Thee Nowell / New York Polyphony

Mcglynn / New York Polyphony / Brailey / Weaver
Release Date: 09/09/2014 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 2099   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Andrew SmithGeoffrey WilliamsPhillippe VerdelotTraditional,   ... 
Performer:  Elizabeth BaberSarah Brailey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mixed 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This new Christmas recording from the male vocal quartet New York Polyphony treads a traditional path–organizing the program sequentially according to the Christian church calendar (from Advent through Epiphany) and primarily sticking to works with familiar texts and sometimes tunes–but from the outset gives notice that the musical settings will not necessarily be the ones you know–which can be a very good thing, or not quite so much. The familiar chant melody of the Advent hymn Veni Emmanuel opens the disc, the four voices in perfect unison–until an unexpected, biting dissonance on the words “Gaude! Gaude!”, repeated in each verse. While in the rest of the piece composer Andrew Smith couches the basic chant melody in a pleasing framework Read more of combined modern and ancient harmonic ideas, this recurring, deliberately ear-grating sound (especially so with these singers’ superbly-tuned, super-vibrant voices!) seems forced and, unless there’s some kind of intended irony–a bitter call to “Rejoice!” for the coming of the Son of God?–this use of extreme dissonance just doesn’t make sense. As always with these things, others will disagree–and no one can deny either the singers’ individual vocal beauty or the impressive ensemble polish.

That said, throughout the rest of the program we hear many more modern settings of ancient and oft-treated texts, including two excellent ones from New York Polyphony countertenor Geoffrey Williams–Adam lay ybounden and There is no rose, the latter an ingenious and absolutely lovely joining of the text to the S.S. Wesley hymn tune “Hereford”, with added “alleluias”. In a nice programming touch (which I’m surprised isn’t adopted more often on recordings like this) three other settings of that same text are included, from the famous 15th-century “original” from the Trinity Carol Roll to John Scott’s decidedly “modern” realization and Richard Rodney Bennett’s masterful melding of old and new style, music that somehow simultaneously resides comfortably in both the 15th and 21st centuries.

We’re also treated to three versions of the text “Out of your sleep”, including one by the abovementioned Andrew Smith, who in this case casts the music in a harmonic world in which the dissonances that he obviously loves (and who doesn’t, in the right context?) beautifully and effectively enhance the expressive impact of music and text. The other two are the “original” 15th-century version from the Selden Manuscript, characterized by assertive, lively rhythms and oft-repeated phrases, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s equally rousing setting, included, along with the above-mentioned There is no rose, in his set of Five Carols, which are all performed here with the addition of sopranos Sarah Brailey and Elizabeth Baber Weaver. Although these performances of the Bennett carols are very well done, I prefer hearing them with a larger ensemble, which gives them a fuller-bodied sound in which you don’t notice individual voices–The Cambridge Singers’ renditions (Collegium), for instance.

The quartet’s bass, Craig Phillips, contributes two excellent pieces (under the name Alexander Craig)–a beautiful harmonization of the traditional Basque carol known as Gabriel’s Message and, a highlight of the disc, an original setting of a James Joyce poem, “Sleep Now”. You can’t complain about the lovely ensemble sound in Victoria’s beloved O magnum mysterium, but there’s something missing interpretively. The heart of the work, that incredible few bars where all is suspended, where the music perfectly captures and defines that precious, surprising moment where we are awestruck by the one who was worthy to bear Christ the Lord: “O beata Virgo…”, this, one of the most affecting moments in all of music, is rendered here as just another part of the piece. Even those delicious dissonances–yes, dissonances!–just go by without a scratch.

There are many other pieces on the program (24 in all), including a few more Renaissance motets and a very interesting modern setting of a not-so-familiar text, O pia virgo (O blessed Virgin), written for New York Polyphony by Michael McGlynn. It’s another of those skillful blends of ancient and new, and it suits the singers very well. As does all of this music, especially evident in the consistent command of ensemble technique, the presence that’s both easy and confident, and the kind of uniform vocal inflection and expressive nuance that only comes with a devoted and close personal and artistic relationship. In spite of a few reservations, I really enjoyed this recording–especially for the works by Geoffrey Williams, Alexander Craig, and Michael McGlynn, and a very fine rendition of the oft-recorded Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock. It’s impossible not to be impressed with the work these four singers have produced in their previous releases, and this one joins the group’s much earlier (2007) Christmas disc, I Sing the Birth (with a slightly different vocal lineup) as one that will get plenty of play during the holiday season.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com [12/2014]
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Works on This Recording

1.
Veni Emmanuel, for chorus by Andrew Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 3 Minutes 18 Secs. 
2.
Adam lay ybounden, for chorus by Geoffrey Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 1 Minutes 33 Secs. 
3.
Gabriel Archangelus, motet for 4 voices by Phillippe Verdelot
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 1532 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 4 Minutes 26 Secs. 
4.
Gabriel's Message (Basque) by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Medieval 
Written: circa 1582; Spain 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 14 Secs. 
5.
There Is No Rose of Such Virtue (English) by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Medieval 
Written: 1420; England 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 20 Secs. 
6.
There is no Rose (Hereford), for chorus by Geoffrey Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 25 Secs. 
7.
Nesciens mater by Byttering
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Medieval 
Written: circa 1410; England 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 1 Minutes 38 Secs. 
8.
O Pia Virgo ( O Blessed Virgin) by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Renaissance 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 3 Minutes 18 Secs. 
9.
Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse (English) by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 3 Minutes 2 Secs. 
10.
Nowell: Arise and wake, for chorus by Andrew Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 3 Minutes 37 Secs. 
11.
Carols (5), for chorus by Richard R. Bennett
Performer:  Elizabeth Baber (), Sarah Brailey ()
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 9 Minutes 22 Secs. 
12.
Sleep Now, for chorus by Alexander Craig
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Modern 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 1 Minutes 41 Secs. 
13.
O magnum mysterium, motet for 4 voices by Tomás L. de Victoria
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 1572; Spain 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 3 Minutes 40 Secs. 
14.
Quem pastores laudavere by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Medieval 
Written: 14th Century 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 41 Secs. 
15.
Quid petis, o fili? by Richard Pygott
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 5 Minutes 57 Secs. 
16.
Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle by Traditional
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Written: France 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 13 Secs. 
17.
Bethlehem Down, for voice & piano by Peter Warlock
Performer:  Sarah Brailey (), Elizabeth Baber ()
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Modern 
Written: 1930 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 4 Minutes 1 Secs. 
18.
Magi veniunt ab oriente by Jacobus Clemens non Papa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Renaissance 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 6 Minutes 43 Secs. 
19.
O little town of Bethlehem by Lewis H. Redner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New York Polyphony
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1868; USA 
Date of Recording: 03/2014 
Venue:  Chapel at The American Boychoir School, 
Length: 2 Minutes 58 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  3 Customer Reviews )
 Lovely, understated, ethereal December 13, 2014 By GraceAnne D. (Bronx, NY) See All My Reviews "We have a great deal of Christmas/Solstice music on CD and in mp3 format, so I hesitated to purchase more. But the samples, and the sections first heard on WQXR's holiday stream, won me over. I was not disappointed. It is a gentle counterpoint, with beautiful musicianship, to bombast (although sometimes we do love bombast in holiday music, I confess!). It will give pleasure for many holiday seasons to come." Report Abuse
 Yearround Pleasure December 1, 2014 By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA) See All My Reviews "New York Polyphony's release "Sing Thee Nowell" is a little unusual. Despite its name, this is a release I'll be enjoying throughout the year. The ensemble's carefully chosen program includes many songs of the season, but few that have been done to death. Even the more familiar carols are heard in new and innovative arrangements. The disc opens with Andrew Smith's arrangement of "Veni Emmanuel," which highlights the medieval origins of the tune. From there, the group moves easily through renaissance works from composers such as Verdelot, Victoria, and Clemens "non Papa." They also perform with equal ease contemporary works by composers such Andrew Smith, John Scott, and Michael McGlynn. A high point of the recording is "Five Carols" by Richard Rodney Bennett. The beautiful and complex harmonies of these carols seem tailor-made for the clear tone and seamless blend of New York Polyphony's ensemble sound. Most of the works are in Latin, which is why I'll be enjoying this disc all year. Since the seasonal messages of the text are lost on me, I can just listen to the beauty of the performances -- even in the middle of summer. This album is available in SACD format. If you appreciate vocal artistry, I recommend you purchasing it in this format. The added detail draws you into the ensemble, and you can hear just how good each of these singers are." Report Abuse
 Yuletide Tradition and Novelty October 30, 2014 By Dean Frey See All My Reviews "The new BIS album from the excellent New York Polyphony includes a few old standbys; we all love the traditional at Christmastime. But as the classical Christmas CDs pile up, most of us look for something new as well, and this album delivers that. The group - counter-tenor, tenor, baritone and bass - sings no less than four different versions of There is No Rose. The first is fairly well known; we’ve been singing it since the 15th Century. John Scott wrote a new version especially for New York Polyphony, and in between the group also sings Geoffrey Williams’ adaptation, based on Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Hereford hymn. The final There is No Rose is one of the Five Carols of utility-infield composer Richard Rodney Bennett. The four male voices are here joined by two sopranos, which brings welcome tonal variety to the program. The sopranos also sing on my favourite track on this album: Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down. I’ve somehow managed to never take notice of this Anglican anthem in years and years of Christmases, though it seems to be a beloved standard in the UK. Based on a lovely poem by Bruce Blunt, this touching and sad piece ties the Nativity with the future Good Friday. Warlock and Blunt entered the piece in a newspaper Christmas Carol contest, and their winnings paid for their Christmas booze. The composer termed it “an immortal carouse.” I’ll be listening to this CD at Christmas while downing my own vintage port or single malt scotch." Report Abuse
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