John Rutter is one of those composers whose name provokes strong contrasting emotions in musicians of all kinds be they performers, fellow composers or audiences. So the fact that Decca have chosen to use his name as very much the masthead for this album is likely to dictate an inclination to purchase or not before the contents are even considered. The expectation of a Christmas cracker or a frozen turkey will be based as much on prior experience as current consideration. Well, I am firmly in the admiring camp and especially when Rutter is essaying the field for which he is best known and first made his name – the Christmas Carol. His role as co-editor with David Willcocks of the multiple volumes of Carols for Choirs has provided singers -Read more and congregations or audiences - around the world with a phenomenally practical and valuable resource that enriches the traditional Christian view of Christmas hugely. As both a tool and an archive this has to be on a level with Vaughan Williams’ editing of Songs of Praise in 1925 rev. 1931.
But what exactly are you getting here under the prominent “John Rutter” label? Well aside from his conducting - appropriate and unfussy as ever - not overly much. Of the twenty-three tracks only two are actual Rutter compositions although a further two have original Rutter fanfares strapped onto the front of them. Then there are seven Rutter arrangements and a final three Rutter orchestrations. Which means that nine tracks have no Rutter input aside from the baton waving. For me this is a disappointment because I really do enjoy his original compositions and arrangements – try his version of Adam’s O Holy Night [track 15] which is mellifluously beautiful; well arranged, sympathetically laid out for the choir and winningly if somewhat cinematic in its final peroration. For an excellent collection dedicated solely to his work as composer/arranger - although without the Adam carol mentioned - I find it still hard to beat the Hyperion disc Rutter: Music for Christmas CDA67245. Elsewhere, he finds himself in further competition with himself and his excellent Cambridge singers on a mid-price Collegium compilation John Rutter at Christmas.
But then no Christmas album is entering an uncrowded marketplace so this must be considered on its own merits. There are several and significant pluses. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is predictably excellent – unfussily accomplished. Likewise the Bach Choir sounds thoroughly engaged in the whole project and sing with a beautiful tonal blend and considerable finesse or power as required. As recorded they do not have quite the same impact and bite that their earlier incarnation did on Chandos under David Willcocks where they were accompanied by the thrillingly brazen Kneller Hall fanfare trumpeters [currently available as Christmas: Bach Choir - Family Carols on Chandos Collect CHAN6671]. No real surprise the choir and orchestra sound so good when you see that Decca have rolled out the experienced team of producer Chris Hazell and engineer Tony Faulkner to oversee things. Considerably less credit to the A&R of Tom Lewis who decided – one assumes it is his department’s responsibility – to take an excellent if traditional album and give it ‘mass appeal’ by the addition of some ill-advised middle-of-the-road song choices in the main featuring ‘guest artists’ Over the Bridge. No, I hadn’t heard of them before either. The link, I guess, is that they are a male close-harmony group of singers from Rutter’s old university – Cambridge. If that makes them sound like King’s-Singers-Lite well that is what they are. And, as with the King’s Singers, their Choral Scholar background means that the pops numbers become toe-curlingly coy. Close harmony swing needs a jazz Swingle-esque/Manhattan Transfer background to work and when it does it can be stunning, here it remains resolutely British – and I do not mean that as a compliment in this context! By a country mile their best track is a King’s Singers arrangement of a Spanish carol/folksong [track 7] – here, in their element, they prove to be a group of proficient singers although some way off being remarkable. Their following track – I wonder as I wander – starts veering toward the saccharin not helped by Bob Chilcott’s rather sentimental arrangement. As this tune wandered I did wonder why they chose to use the Chilcott arrangement since Rutter’s own as performed on the Hyperion disc is a gently lyrical gem - very much in the tradition of Vaughan Williams’ folk-song settings and none the worse for that. The answer is that as an ex-King’s Singer himself Chilcott has arranged it for the close harmony line-up; the Rutter version is far finer. Juxtaposed as that is against the second of the original Rutter compositions – his early Star Carol – which epitomises why the young Rutter’s compositions made such an impact; it’s melodically catchy and appealing, full of a touching emotional naivety and exceptionally well-crafted. Against it the other original Rutter composition, the eponymous Colours of Christmas – while retaining the craft – sounds rather formulaic and indeed bland. This especially when contrasted with the big set-piece carols. It might have taken a composer, two arrangers and an orchestrator but the version of Once in Royal David’s City encapsulates what most people will be seeking when buying this kind of large-scale full orchestra medley of popular carols. James O’Donnell’s arrangement of the final verse is gloriously heraldic and grandly topped off by Rutter’s sure orchestration featuring the over-dubbed Albert Hall organ. I did do a little double-take reading the name of John Birch as organist. He was the doyen of so many classic Decca discs of many years ago following on from his hugely successful stint as choirmaster of Chichester Cathedral. A quick check would seem to imply he was 82 when this disc was made – a cause for celebration by all and proof of the adage that old organists never die because they won’t go voluntary-ly - a bad gag worthy of a Christmas cracker if ever there was. Other ‘standards’ – O come all ye faithful, and Hark! The herald angels sing to name but two - are equally successful. Indeed, the programme is generally well planned, being essentially popular but with a good range of moods and styles from simple unaccompanied to grandiose. The Sweelinck Hodie, Christus natus est is interesting but the choir and brass group do not seem quite sure if they are meant to employ period performance style or not so the result is strangely faceless.
Rutter has a history of arranging ‘pops’ – his Beatles Concerto being a case in point. However, I would happily never hear his version of The Christmas Song ever again (it’s the one that goes “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) – its irredeemably twee and about as welcome as a pair of patterned socks. The ‘English’ sound of the Bach Choir works against the piece no matter how well – on one level – it is sung. If The Christmas Song started the toe-curling process, Over the Bridge’s dreadful Have yourself a merry little Christmas ensured that all the toes were neatly tied up in cringing bows. How anyone listening to this aberrant offspring of classical and pops can think that the result is anything but abject and misbegotten escapes me. Right down to the mannered pronunciation of “liddle’ Christmas – its American geddit! At least it allowed me to get my annual “Pah, Humbug” out of the way good and early. Likewise, why it was deemed sensible to drop a Leroy Anderson Sleigh Ride in the midst of all this I have no idea. Great piece, well performed in a rather anonymous, staid and unremarkable way - not a patch on Anderson’s own justly famous – Decca also – recording - but totally out of context here. You can always programme out these tracks and since things don’t start going badly wrong until track 18 the stop-button can beckon although that would mean missing out on Rutter’s skilfully illustrative take of Twelve days of Christmas and a final and uplifting Hark the Herald Angels in the classic Willcocks arrangement with an added – not hugely impressive – Rutter opening fanfare.
Down to some more mundane details; the liner includes all texts as sung which means mainly in English with a couple where the English translation is added alongside original texts. Other than that and general biographies and ensemble information, Rutter contributes a very brief note. Nothing like as informative or interesting as the typically high quality liner provided for the Hyperion disc. All the performers are very fine when doing what they do best – I am sure others will find the style of certain tracks less infuriating than I do. Engineering is very good although the extra resonance of the Albert Hall does mean that the organ’s contribution audibly decays more slowly than the orchestral group. As a passing thought I do find it rather depressing that a company like Decca has gone from being repertoire-driven with a release schedule matching the finest of any in the industry to one that relies on passing fashion or nominal celebrity for its current forays into the world of classical music. Much of this disc is very good and enjoyable although I am not sure that any of it supplants performances already in my collection.