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Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, November 2010

Manchester Carols is a sequence of Christmas songs crafted in 2007 by Sasha Johnson Manning, an English composer who was once in residence with the St Louis Chamber Chorus. Her librettist is Carol Ann Duffy, successor to the likes of Spenser, Dryden, Wordsworth, and Tennyson as England’s Poet Laureate. The carols are gentle, lilting affairs designed to convey the sweetness and light of the Christmas message. For evocations of a bleak midwinter, look elsewhere.

Soprano timbre can be a bit heavy, as is the strange pronunciation of the holiday. (“Kreesmahs”? Ugh.) But for the most part the voices sing of angels, snowflakes, flowers, stars, candlelight, bells, and the rest with all the charm and innocence you would want. More warm fuzzies come from the orchestra, a first-rate ensemble that’s one of the house bands for Naxos. Taking in this seasonal confection too much at a time could induce the emotional equivalent of a diabetic coma. But experienced in moderation—perhaps a few carols at a time—this could add happiness and warmth to Christmas 2010.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, December 2009

This lovely disc is the finest offering to have come my way this Christmas. The Manchester Carols is a cycle of poems by Carol Ann Duffy set to music by Sasha Johnson Manning. Premiered in 2007 at the Royal Northern College of Music, the aim of the writers was to make the carol contemporary again and to reawaken us to its potential power in the 21st century. In this they have succeeded remarkably well, producing thought-provoking poetry which engages with the modern world and music which is instantly appealing and eminently singable. The orchestration is light and airy, captured in fantastic Naxos sound that puts us right in the midst of the performers. I was a little worried when I saw that there were no sung texts included in the CD booklet, but the annunciation of the Manchester Carollers (aka the BBC Daily Service Singers) is so good that you can make out nearly every word.

The musical settings are simple and mostly strophic, making them easy to follow, and Johnson Manning’s excellent melodic gift is evident in every number. She also shows herself an extremely capable orchestrator as each and every number feels entirely appropriate in its choice of instrumentation, from the glinting bell-like sounds of the opening Carol Singer’s Carol to the simple piano accompaniment of Mary’s Carol.

From the outset the genial atmosphere is established, as is the composer’s ingenuity with, for example, the fine idea of continually adding instruments to the texture of The Advent Carol as each element tells the story of the Christ child anew. The Annunciation is a simple setting mainly for a solo soprano with harp as the “golden youth” gives the news of the Christmas child to Mary. The Trees carries on the tradition of many carols, depicting Joseph requesting a gift from various trees: fruit from the apple tree, wood from the cherry tree, but “thorns for a crowning” and “wood for a cross” from the Blackthorn and Elder trees. Let it be cold contains pretty references to starlight and snowflakes, but also carries a warning to look after the natural world that we have been given, while A Miracle likens the situation of Mary and Joseph to modern homelessness. The playing of the recorders and the choice of a minor key lend striking colour to New Boy Born while The Gold of Straw, a hugely appealing number, sounds almost like a rustic dance as the uncomprehending robin in the stable sees only that he has no use for the Wise Men’s gifts and would rather use the straw for his nest. Mary’s Carol is a beautiful lullaby while Call it Nazareth is challengingly contemporary, likening the Holy Family’s journey home to Nazareth with modern war zones like Darfur, Bosnia and Baghdad. The final carol, We Believe, returns to the sound-world of the opening both suggestively—in its instrumentation—and actually—in reiterating the chorus of Mirabile Dictu. The Present Song, described as an encore, pays homage to The Twelve Days of Christmas with its seemingly endless list of presents under the tree and is very fun way to end the disc.

Duffy’s poetry repeatedly refuses to be sucked into tradition—Jesus gets his first mention in Carol 13 of the cycle!—but instead challenges the listener to see the Christmas story through new eyes, drawing parallels with many modern issues in an inventive, never tokenistic manner. Her poetry combined with Johnson Manning’s obvious musical gifts have made a hugely successful and atmospherically beautiful cycle of carols which deserves to gain the widest possible audience. Naxos has done us all a service by releasing it: it deserves to become a hit.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Above all, Miss Johnson Manning has an enviable melodic facility and the one thing that The Manchester Carols does not lack is memorable, singable tunes. A good number of the pieces are bright and fresh, including ‘Mirabile Dictu’, which sticks readily in the mind, the engaging ‘The Trees’ and the bright and breezy ‘An Angel’.

Elsewhere, a more reflective note is struck. The first slow number that we encounter is the fifth carol, ‘Annunciation’, and it’s worth the wait. This is a touching, intimate piece, which features a lovely melody. Much of the setting is for solo soprano—the composer herself on this occasion, and very good she is too—accompanied by harp. ‘A Miracle’ is another slow piece and it’s quite serious in tone. A male soloist carries much of the musical argument—according to the booklet the soloist is a tenor but it’s a pretty low-lying part, more suited to a baritone I’d have thought. This carol is a prayerful piece with more than a touch of melancholy. Another reflective piece, and one which I can see being a ‘hit’ is ‘Mary’s Carol’. This is for voices and piano, though in the main the singers are unaccompanied. It’s described by its composer as “loving and intimate”. I’d agree with that and add that it’s a very sincere little setting and rather lovely.

As I’ve already said, a very strong melodic vein runs throughout these carols. The harmonies aren’t especially challenging but I don’t say that in a critical sense; the aim of these compositions is, surely, for people to enjoy them at first hearing—and also to take part; I’m sure these pieces will be well within the compass of most decent amateur choirs. If I have a criticism of the music itself it’s that the settings are rather weighted towards the treble line—I’m not surprised to learn that a high-voice version of The Manchester Carols is to be published in time for Christmas 2010. Perhaps the impression of treble bias is emphasised by the fact that on this recording the choir consists of three each of altos, tenors and basses but there are six sopranos, of which the composer is one.

The singing is alert, fresh and enthusiastic. Incidentally, the Manchester Carollers may be more familiar to some as the group who can be heard most weekday mornings on BBC Radio Four as the Daily Service Singers. The small chamber orchestra offers bright playing under the direction of Richard Tanner, the Director of Music at Blackburn Cathedral.

The recording was made before the first public performance, which took place in December 2007. Since then the score has been “extensively revised”, we’re told, the revision including the excision of three numbers, so this will probably be your only chance to hear the original version.

These are fresh, lively and enjoyable Christmas compositions and worth hearing as a contemporary alternative to our usual seasonal musical fare - but an addition to it as well.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

Sasha Johnson Manning has set the words of the British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to create a series of highly commercial and readily enjoyable carols appropriate to the 21st century. The music falls within that convenient heading of ‘crossover’, with that pleasurable sing-along style that is presently enjoying enormous popularity in music for Christmas. The disc’s presentation offers carols “for everybody, the believer and the non-believer, people of other faiths”, though in reality the sixteen poems are relative to the Christian belief in the birth of Jesus, with words that make that story a believable event. With accompaniments that will appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners, it generates a feel of well-being, with the fashionable flute and harp playing an important role. The booklet tells us nothing about The Manchester Carollers, but some familiar names suggests the true identity is a small professional group in the north of England that is much attuned to this style of music. Their backing comes from the orchestra who we know rather better for their Mozart and Haydn recordings, but they prove highly adaptable. A welcome Christmas gift.

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