Most countries have their own traditions around Advent and Christmas. Part of the tradition in Britain is the carol. Originally the carol was not specifically related to Advent or Christmas.
New Grove has this definition: "During the Middle Ages, an English or Latin song of uniform stanzas beginning with a refrain called a 'burden' that is repeated after each stanza." It is added that medieval carols could be on any subject, but were "mostly about the Virgin or the Saints of Christmas". So the phenomenon of the Chrismas carol has a long history.
Today the songs which are ranked among the Christmas carols have little in common with theirRead more medieval predecessors. The latter were monophonic, and the text - a mixture of Latin and English - focused on the Blessed Virgin. The form of the medieval carol has also changed. Today every song with a Christmas subject can be called 'carol'. The track-list of this disc bears witness to that.
The singing of Christmas carols not only has a long history, it is also a living tradition. Today many choirs like to sing carols, and many people like to listen to them. Many carols are sung all over the world.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht may be of Austrian origin but it is much better known with the English text
Silent night, holy night. The same has happened with other carols. Not many people know that
Ding dong! merrily on high is originally French. But original English carols have also found their way all over the world. Examples are
Once in royal David's city, The holly and the ivy and
O come all ye faithful. The tradition is kept alive by modern composers who wrote their own carols - think of Richard Rodney Bennett and John Joubert - or arranged existing material in their own idiom, like Harold Darke.
One of the attractions of this disc is the variety of the repertoire, ranging from the most traditional carols to pieces from the 20th century. Both traditional tunes in arrangements and original compositions are represented, and the texts - not printed in the booklet - are either from the past (
There is no rose) or new (
Torches). The danger of performing very popular pieces is that they are played to death. Often attempts to make them sound fresh lead to vulgarisation. There is no danger of that here. The Choir of New College Oxford is one of Britain's best ensembles of its kind. It delivers highly differentiated and often subtle interpretations of music most of you will have heard umpteen times.
Logical phrasing and clear articulation are among the virtues of this choir, and these serve the repertoire on this disc well, whether old or new. Some of the best-known carols for full choir are sung with vigour, but never exaggerated. This disc begins and ends beautifully with
Once in royal David's city and
Hark the herald angels sing respectively. The refrain of
Ding dong! merrily on high is an example of the differentiated treatment of dynamics. The evergreen
Silent night, holy night is given a refreshingly tasteful performance. The traditional
Sing lullaby, a piece of Basque origin, is performed here with great subtlety. The pieces by Bennett and Joubert have little appeal for me, but are nicely sung. I was more pleased by the four carols by Gustav Holst, written for a variety of scorings, some of them with harp accompaniment - beautifully played by Frances Kelly. Some of these feature solo episodes. The Holst items are excellently sung by various members of the choir. These are not mentioned in the track-list which is a regrettable omission. These contributions serve to only emphasize the impressive quality of the singing.
This disc is a compilation drawn from three previous CRD discs. It is well worth trying to purchase the set. If you don't need that many carols or you cannot track down the set then this disc is a good alternative. It will be hard to find better performances of Christmas carols. The programme guarantees almost 80 minutes of exquisite singing.
It needs to be added that the 'booklet' - which is hardly the appropriate word for a sheet of just four pages – gives no information about individual items. The track-list identifies various carols as 'traditional', whereas the original discs have the names of the composers. I have corrected the track-list on the basis of the data in the three-disc set which can be found here.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Once in Royal David's Cityby Henry John Gauntlett Conductor:
Period: Romantic Written: 19th Century; England Length: 4 Minutes 23 Secs.