The Flying Inkpot
, December 2004
"Bah! Humbug! 'Tis the season to be jolly, but Naxos have chosen to give us three works here with the same carols repeated - God rest ye is presented in four of the works, Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen twice, Ding Dong merrily on high twice and I saw three ships twice as well. That's a total of at least 15 minutes that could have been better used somewhere, somehow! Bah!
Seriously, though, this disc, full of Christmas tunes arranged into "symphonic" works by five different composers, will be of interest mostly to those who want to listen to to their favourite carols dressed up, but also those interested in the composers represented here.
The title of the disc is A Christmas Symphony, and this is the longest work on this disc, lasting 24'42". Four traditional carols make up its four traditional symphony movements - an Allegro, a Scherzo, an Andante and a Finale. Without analysing everything to death, this is probably one of the better arranged works, and is as such the most enjoyable - tastefully and artfully arranged by Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47). His use of harmony doesn't grate and he sets up the music so that when the carols enter they don't seem out of place. In this, and the preceding work, Bryan Kelly's (b. 1934) Improvisations on Christmas Carols (1969), which is not as subtly arranged but still enjoyable, the listener is guaranteed to be left with silly smiles at some point.
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) is probably the best known composer on this disc; his contribution, Bethleham Down, a carol for strings, is presented in its arrangement by Philip Lane, who is himself represented by his early work Wassail Dances. Bethleham Down is probably the most pensive and pastoral piece here. It lasts all of about four minutes but immediately manages to establish a lyricism that is not to be found in the rest of the collection. As a piece for strings, it is remarkably effective and evocative.
Philip Lane’s (incidentally the author of the excellent and detailed sleeve notes) Dances were written when he was only 23 and is lighter stuff than the Warlock but no less pleasant or enjoyable for that, especially in the Andantino, written in the style of a Yorkshire wassail (a dance). The last movement, a Goucestershire wassail, is appropriately folk-like and earthy. It made me want to dance. Brilliant!
Patric Standford's (b.1939 and not to be confused with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford) "A Christmas Carol Symphony" turns out very well indeed, despite the "commercial" sounding arrangements, which in some bits sound suspiciously like a soundtrack (or a filmscore) to a Christmas movie. All the same, it’s lots of good fun, and of all the works featured I think it the most interestingly presented and orchestrated. Away in a Manger is particularly lush and easy to enjoy. In the “scherzo”, which takes its themes from three carols, most recognizably The Twelve Days of Christmas the mood is delightfully Christmassy and festive, the instrumentation appropriate without being clichéd.
Not to philosophize too much over what is a simple CD, but I wonder how these works would have sounded if I had never heard these carols before – would my enjoyment have been as great? I would have loved to hear these played by one of those light music broadcast orchestras, who specialized in playing this sort of repertoire and would surely have excelled in it.
If Christmas tunes are what you want, here they are aplenty, and I can’t imagine anyone buying this disc being disappointed with what is presented here. The music is well-played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the excellent Gavin Sutherland - they aren't the last word in beauty or tone, but are more than adequate. Best enjoyed with your feet on top of a footstool, in good, jolly company, a glass of wine and when not taken too seriously."