What Sweeter Music: Songs & Carols for Christmas / Tenebrae

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Nigel Short and his choir of professional singers, Tenebrae, made their debut on disc with a CD of music for Advent and Christmas, released in 2002, entitled The Dream of Herod (SIGCD046). They return to seasonal music with this CD, most of which is brand new, though a few tracks were recorded a while ago.

The programme is divided, broadly, into three categories. Quite a number of items are modern arrangements of old favourites. Nigel Short himself contributes very pleasing arrangements of Quem Pastores? and Away in a Manger. Both of these are not only effective but seem also to evidence affection for the original carols. Though some may feel the performance of Away in a Manger is rather on the slow side there’s no denying the chaste purity of the setting and the unnamed solo soprano who sings verse one does so exquisitely. Jonathan Rathbone’s arrangement of Silent Night is also very welcome, encasing the familiar tune in slow-moving close harmonies. While enjoying these and other new arrangements of old standards, however, it’s good to find that, just like his descants for popular congregational carols, the arrangements by Sir David Willcocks of Quelle est cette odeur agreeable? and Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day more than stand the test of time.

Mention of Sir David in a Christmas context inevitably leads one to the name of John Rutter. In fact I believe that Sir David was instrumental in starting Rutter off on his immensely successful career by championing Nativity Carol, one of his very earliest Christmas pieces, which he wrote while still a Cambridge undergraduate. Here it is once more, beautifully sung by Tenebrae. Incidentally, though one very often hears it accompanied by orchestra I prefer it with a gentle organ accompaniment - as here - since that reinforces the intimacy of this lovely little carol. Nigel Short has chosen two more Rutter carols, both of which I think are among Rutter’s finest. He and his expert choir give exquisite, controlled performances of What Sweeter Music? and There is a Flower, though I have to say that the former is taken a bit slowly for my taste - I seem to recall that Rutter himself, in his own recording, was just a touch swifter, to the music’s advantage. There is a Flower opens and closes with a solo voice. Previously, in my experience, this has been a treble or soprano but here the solo is allotted to a baritone. Though the singer does well I don’t think the choice quite works; when sung by a male voice the melody - and the words - rather loses the pure innocence that a high voice can bring.

The Rutter items fall into the second category of offerings in this programme: original compositions. We also find Tavener’s The Lamb and Howells’s A Spotless Rose. Both are beautifully done but, though I greatly admire both settings, I do feel that their near-ubiquity in programmes such as this is in danger of devaluing them and making them seem routine. I acknowledge that both are popular items - deservedly so - and that popularity sells discs but it would be nice if choirs remembered that Howells in particular wrote several other fine Christmas settings. By comparison, Adrian Peacock’s Veni, veni is scarcely well known but I hope its exposure here will encourage other choirs to investigate it for it is a good piece that grows in excitement from almost nothing until it reaches an abrupt end.

But if I had to single out one piece deserving of wide currency then I’d unhesitatingly nominate Jonathan Rathbone’s The Oxen. In the booklet Nigel Short describes this as a “ravishing setting” and he’s spot on in that judgement. Rathbone takes Thomas Hardy’s poem and clothes it in wonderful, luminous close harmonies that move gently and slowly. This hushed setting for unaccompanied voices struck me as a superb response to the poem and when I played the disc for the first time I replayed this item immediately on hearing it. I just regret that it’s followed immediately on the disc by the necessarily boisterous Gaudete, which rather breaks the spell that Rathbone has cast.

The third category of music in the programme accommodates the lighter, secular pieces. Jingle Bells is presented in a clever, jazzy arrangement and Nigel Short’s version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas is also effective. Best of the three items in this category, I think, is Andrew Carter’s The Twelve Days of Christmas. This is ingenious and entertaining, though I’ll reserve judgement on the farmyard noises that the singers contribute, presumably at Carter’s behest.

Tenebrae perform these three secular items with evident relish and, indeed, the technical accomplishment that’s in evidence throughout this recital is of the highest order. They bring an effortless excellence to all their singing and deliver the entire programme with supreme professionalism and a good deal of commitment. I can see this disc giving a lot of pleasure this Christmas; I shall certainly be listening to it with great enjoyment during the Festive Season.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International 


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: SIGCD182


  • UPC: 635212018224


  • Label: Signum Classics


  • Composer: Franz Xaver Gruber, Herbert Howells, John Rutter, John Tavener, Jonathan Rathbone, Peter Wishart, Traditional, William James Kirkpatrick


  • Conductor: Nigel Short


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Tenebrae


  • Performer: James Sherlock