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Vaughan Williams: The First Nowell; Bach: Cantata 63; Mendelssohn: Vom Himmel Hoch

Vaughan Williams / Bach / London Philharmonic Orch
Release Date: 11/16/2010 
Label:  Lpo   Catalog #: 50  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian BachFelix MendelssohnRalph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  Lisa MilneRuxandra DonoseAndrew StaplesChristopher Maltman
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic OrchestraLondon Philharmonic Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This very fine and thoughtfully programmed Christmas recording resulted from a concert presented at London's Royal Festival Hall in December 2009. The highlight here is Ralph Vaughan Williams' ultimate homage to Christmas, The First Nowell. Originally conceived as a Nativity play for actors, solo singers, chorus, and orchestra, this version, outlined in the published score and nearly 30 minutes in length, ditches the actors and staging and presents the music as an integrated series of arrangements of Christmas songs and carols, both well-known and obscure--but invariably attractive and accessible, artfully designed to function as a unified work rather than just a collection of songs. It's puzzling why this work isn't performed and recorded Read more more often--but this performance is as good as you'll hear, so if you're a lover of Christmas music, don't hesitate to snap this up.

The program begins with a decent enough reading of Bach's cantata for Christmas Day BWV 63, a remarkable work that features an orchestra with (unusual in the cantatas) four trumpets, recitatives rather than arias, two duets (an especially lively and lovely one for alto and tenor), and two of Bach's brightest and most brilliant choruses that open and close the work. Bach performed this December 25, 1723, his first Christmas in Leipzig, and it must have made a grand impression. This rendition may not be as crisply articulated in the tuttis as we're used to from the best period-performance groups, but it's still very respectable, especially for an orchestra and choir who don't specialize in this sort of thing--and the instrumental obbligatos, continuo, and vocal solos are excellent.

Mendelssohn's six-movement Christmas cantata Vom Himmel hoch, based on Luther's famous hymn, may have been patterned after Bach's chorale cantatas, but the typically overwrought choruses and pretty if not especially inspired arias stand well apart musically from Bach's more elegant and masterful creations. Even the choral sound here is muddier--a Mendelssohnian texture problem, not the choir's--and for some reason, baritone Christopher Maltman's vibrato widens to dangerous proportions in his two solos (not an issue at all in the Bach or Vaughan Williams). The best part of this work is the luscious final cadence on the word "ewiglich" in the central chorale. Of course, legions of Mendelssohn fans will disagree, and certainly Vom Himmel hoch partners well with the program's other works--it's just not great music.

Annoyingly, for a critic anyway, there are no separate track listings or timings anywhere, but there are complete texts and translations; the notes are minimal but informative enough. The sound, except for the choral sections of the Mendelssohn, is fine concert-hall, live-performance quality, well-balanced with particularly clear detail in the orchestral parts. And even though for some reason applause is included at the end, it very politely doesn't begin for a good seven seconds--so you can easily just chop it off. Get this for the Vaughan Williams and the Bach.

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Lisa Milne (Soprano), Ruxandra Donose (Mezzo Soprano), Andrew Staples (Tenor),
Christopher Maltman (Baritone)
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  London Philharmonic Choir
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1713-1715; Cöthen, Germany 
2.
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Lisa Milne (Soprano), Ruxandra Donose (Mezzo Soprano), Andrew Staples (Tenor),
Christopher Maltman (Baritone)
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  London Philharmonic Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831; Germany 
3.
The First Nowell by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  Lisa Milne (Soprano), Ruxandra Donose (Mezzo Soprano), Andrew Staples (Tenor),
Christopher Maltman (Baritone)
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  London Philharmonic Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; England 

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