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Mel Martin
Audiophile Audition, December 2016

Eight Christmas CDs for the 2016 Holidays

…yet another fine recording from the City of Prague Philharmonic with Gavin Sutherland conducting. The strings are lovely, and there is good deep bass when the music requires it. The music was recorded in a large hall, and it’s a fine, very natural sounding recording.

The arrangements are very nice, the playing is first rate, and the recording satisfies without ever dipping into clichés. Highly recommended for Christmas Music scrooges! © 2016 Audiophile Audition Read complete review

Matty J Hifi
Classical Rough and Ready, November 2009

Hely-Hutchinson’s Christmas Symphony is, in a word, charming. It manages to be thoroughly Christmasy through and through, and while somewhat musically less sophisticated than the typical symphony, it is on the other hand a great deal more substantial than a mere medley of carols. It never jars the ear with anything that is less than seasonally appropriate, and I suppose that you could say I’m damning with faint praise with such an observation, but I really do like the piece. It’s only that it pales (a little) set beside the Patric Stanford symphony. Now Stanford’s work came along in the late 70s, a full 50 years after Hely-Hutchinson’s, and you would expect it to be a little more…modern, sophisticated, substantial. And it is. And better still, it manages to be all these things without giving up any of the holiday spirit. Shoot and score. Honestly, I can’t figure out why both of these symphonies aren’t played at holiday pops concerts year in and year out. The term “symphony” maybe used loosely here, but that can’t detract from their listenability.

Derek Lim
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."

Michael Anthony
StarTribune, December 2003

"The always-surprising Naxos label offers familiar Christmas music in big-orchestra garb, taking the CD's title from "A Carol Symphony," by South African composer Victor Hely-Hutchinson. The 1927 piece is said to be the first substantial orchestral work based on Christmas carols. Later works, Bryan Kelly's "Improvisations on Christmas Carols" and Patric Standford's "A Christmas Carol Symphony," are also included, as is the touching "Bethlehem Down," an arrangement for orchestra by Philip Lane of a choral piece by Peter Warlock. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra led by Gavin Sutherland plays nobly."

Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia), December 2002

"Brian Kelly's Improvisations on Christmas Carols, Warlock's Bethlehem Down for string orchestra, Philip Lane's Malcolm Arnold-like Wassail Dances and Patrick Stanford's A Christmas Carol Symphony all manage to steer a course away from the obvious. If you want to be really different this Christmas, this is the disc to choose."

David Vernier

"There's nothing like Christmas to bring out a composer's more unapologetically clever and enthusiastically indulgent, prodigiously inventive ideas, in apparent realization of childhood's most extravagant fantasies and enchanted imaginings, to say nothing of providing a wonderful excuse for an artist to simply go happily and uninhibitedly wild. The collection of Christmas-inspired orchestral "fantasies" on this CD is certain to become one of your favorite holiday listening traditions as you join these five composers in an upbeat--and sometimes unconventional--celebration of some of the season's most familiar Christmas carols and songs...The City of Prague Philharmonic proves a first-rate interpreter of these scores, conveying all the music's exuberance and spirit with flawless technical prowess and Technicolor-grade contributions from the winds and brass. Conductor Gavin Sutherland deserves credit for inspired leadership in these all-too-rarely performed works--any one of which would make a guaranteed audience-pleasing addition to a holiday concert. Having these together on one budget-priced CD is truly a gift worthy of the season it celebrates. And Naxos complements the whole production with top-grade sound. Adeste fidelis! 10/10."

Detroit Free Press

"For the sister who would be glad to know whom the classical music critics have anointed the composer-of-the-moment: Stephen Hartke, new CDs confirm Hartke's eclecticism -- from jazz-influenced scores to Gothic-inspired spiritualism -- and underscore his gift for writing music that is accessible without pandering, studious without sounding academic and postmodern without falling into pastiche."

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