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Christopher Thomas
MusicWeb International, December 2006

The positive plethora of Christmas music available on CD these days ensures that there is something out there for everyone whichever direction your musical taste may take you. The choice does however make for a good deal of duplication with endless recordings of the evergreen carols by everyone from Kiri Te Kanawa to your local cathedral choir.

It is therefore quite refreshing to come across a new recording - in this case very new as the Naxos team have turned it round inside two months since its mid-September recording - that tries to come up with something outside the realms of the immediately familiar. True, not all of the music is of a quality that will grant it immortality amongst the all-time seasonal classics but there are several delights that are sure to bring a good deal of festive cheer.

Chief amongst these delights are the contributions of the seemingly indefatigable Philip Lane. His Overture on French Carols and setting for narrator and orchestra of Clement Clarke Moore’s cheekily charming poem ’Twas the Night before Christmas are enchanting additions to the bulging Christmas repertoire.

It is somewhat appropriate that the Overture on French Carols was inspired by a Christmas visit to Bayeux. Lane weaves a tapestry of perennial French carols including Il est né le divin enfant, Patapan and Noël nouvelet into a skilfully orchestrated five minute concert overture that deserves to find its way into the concert programmes of amateur as well as professional orchestras.

The star of the show however is the Moore setting, narrated by Stephen Fry in his familiar, erudite tones. This is music that is as warming as a steaming glass of mulled wine and as cosy as a fresh Yule log on the fire. The composer points out that he wrote the piece upon realising that there was no setting of the poem for narrator and orchestra, although maybe it also crossed his mind that Howard Blake’s The Snowman has virtually monopolised the narration element of Christmas concert programmes for many a year now.

Lane does not set out to create anything as ambitious as the Blake in his six minute setting, deliberately keeping the music to the length of time it takes to read the poem. Yet despite its comparative brevity the music is every bit as delightful as Blake’s classic and is likely to warm many a Christmas heart, both young and old.

Philip Lane is also behind two of the other notable curiosities in John Carmichael’s fleeting Sleighride to Thredbo, a brief musical picture of a ski resort in the composer’s native New South Wales and Doreen Carwithen’s On the Twelfth Day. Originally written to accompany a short film based around The Twelve Days of Christmas this twenty minute reconstruction slightly remodels the music in an attempt to make it more suitable for the concert-stage. The film went on to receive an Oscar nomination although without the visual element the music struggles to sustain its over-lengthy duration.

Elsewhere Anthony Collins’ arrangement of Liszt’s Christmas Tree Suite is another pleasant curiosity whilst the Massenet is beautifully played by solo cellist Matthew Lee.

The Christmas Overtures of Otto Nicolai and Coleridge-Taylor fail to hit the spot despite the best efforts of the BBC Concert Orchestra and Barry Wordsworth to inject enthusiasm into what is somewhat uninspired music. Overall however, this does not detract from a largely appealing CD that is worth its modest price tag simply for the pleasure of the Philip Lane contributions.

Orchestra, singers and conductor are on good form throughout and the recording lives up to the increasingly consistent standards that we have come to expect from Naxos.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, November 2006

I nearly did it, I nearly caught myself thinking – and writing: ‘This is too good for children.’ Remembering my own first experiences with records I would say top quality performance is a must as an introduction to good music – bad, or merely beige noises are more than likely to put a sensitive young soul off ‘serious’ music for life. If you are thinking of making a start on introducing your wee treasure to the sound of a classical orchestra then this could be the very place.

Don’t be deceived by the cartoon on the cover however – this is in fact comes over as quite a toothsome programme, with well-written, certainly well arranged and incontrovertibly well performed works – all in sparklingly fresh, rich sound. There is hardly a hackneyed carol in sight, and certainly nothing you will hear over the speakers in your local supermarket this Christmas – bliss! The opening Classic Sleighride is in fact one movement from a piece called Musical Sleighride, attributed to Leopold Mozart, but with origins which are somewhat mysterious. It has all of the wondrous jangling bells you would expect and some super horn calls, setting the mood for this CD in admirable fashion.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is best known for his Hiawatha trilogy, but his Christmas Overture appeared only in 1925 after being arranged by Sydney Baynes, composer of the ‘Destiny Waltz.’ It is a nicely put-together piece, being more than just a potpourri of Christmas tunes, but cleverly integrating some famous carols like Hark the herald angels sing and God rest you, merry gentlemen into a pleasantly coherent work.

Jules Massenet provides some gentle contrast with The Last Sleep of the Virgin, a remnant from La Vierge, an oratorio or ‘sacred legend’ which is rarely heard in its entirety today. Matthew Lee plays a suitably understated cello solo part, in what is after all a quiet lullaby.

Philip Lane is a name which may not be household, but his work most certainly is – he did after all write the ‘Captain Pugwash’ theme. His Overture on French Carols is, like the Coleridge-Taylor, a well written work which introduces tunes which are simultaneously familiar and refreshingly different, like Noël nouvelet and Quelle est cette odeur agréable. The tunes may be French, but the character of the work is disarmingly British, with touches of Malcolm Arnold and Vaughan Williams among others – I wonder what our European partners make of it.

There is a more Hollywood feel to The Night Before Christmas. Filling the lack of an orchestral accompaniment to Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, the piece was apparently composed within a week in November 2005, and is deliberately compact, allowing the text to flow without too many moments of programmatic padding. Despite being written for a modest orchestra there is plenty of variety in texture, making the most and getting the best out of the instruments with touches of harp and percussion widening the scope of winds (brass and wood) and strings. There are some marvellously witty touches to go under the descriptions and action in the poem, and with such a symbiotically hand-in-hand approach this is the ideal opportunity for Stephen Fry to go some way toward compensating for his own well documented agonies at being unable to produce music himself. As you might expect, his reading is perfect – intimately confiding at the opening, later filled with wonder and excitement, expression and characterful nuance without any forcing or artificiality in the declamation. His subtle portrayal of ‘Saint Nick’ is a joy, and his own pleasure in lines like ‘… a little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly’ is infectious, revelling in and revealing the succulence of the language as much as the colourful nature of the story.

After the light-footed reindeer and smoky St. Nicholas we immediately have some heavier fare, with Otto Nicolai’s Christmas Overture, which has plenty of Brahmsian weight, developing Vom Himmel Hoch into a substantial symphonic movement.

The Australian/British composer John Carmichael wrote a suite based around the ski resort of Thredbo in New South Wales, and this Sleighride, while less overtly jingly-jangly (no bells) as that of Mozart’s dad, provides a fun ride nonetheless – full of descriptive whoops and whistling.

Anthony Collins published his arrangement of four movements from Franz Liszt’s Christmas Tree Suite in 1952, using strings and celeste to create by turns a cheery, light and atmospheric seasonal concert piece. Rebecca Turner’s solo in the second movement, In Olden Times is again suitably restrained and nostalgically lyrical.

Dorothy Carwithen studied at the Royal Academy of Music and specialised in film music, working closely with Muir Mathieson and producing music for over thirty films. As William Alwyn’s second wife her compositional activity unfortunately took a back seat, but wrote On the Twelfth Day as a continuous score for a short film without dialogue, taking the famous seasonal song literally to disastrous, comic effect. The film received Oscar and BAFTA nomination, and while a great deal of the pictorial elements (car horns and the like) have been kept, Philip Lane has adapted the piece for concert performance, taking the lack of visual reference into consideration. This works very well, and while you probably won’t find yourself laughing out loud, there are plenty of fun moments, robust film-score style writing and lovely choral singing which make this into more than just a pleasant diversion.

This is a grand alternative to the usual ‘Christmas Album’, and Naxos deserve plaudits for combining commercial attractiveness with a net cast wide, catching all kinds of unusual repertoire for our seasonal entertainment. Does it go without saying that the recording is excellent and the performances spotless? No, because this will be the second time I’ve said it, so it must be true.

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