Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 10
Along a bend in the Grand River lies Elora, billed as “Ontario’s most beautiful village…”–and if you’ve ever visited there, you wouldn’t disagree with the description. And if you happened to be in the neighborhood and were able to attend one of the Elora Festival Singers’ concerts, you’d also agree that this 24-voice choir, led by founder/director Noel Edison, is not only one of Canada’s, but one of the world’s finest professional choral ensembles. I’ve previously reviewed–and highly recommended–a half dozen of this group’s Naxos recordings, but this one seems to be its first Christmas disc for the label since the late 1990s–and it’s a first rate effort that joins traditional carols and arrangements to lesser-known works both old and new.
It almost doesn’t matter what the repertoire is: these singers embrace and elevate everything they sing–and their performances are imbued with a vivaciousness and joy that’s absolutely infectious. But Edison always chooses well, with a keen programmatic sense. The opening Once in royal David’s city (with Willcocks’ descant) follows a long tradition associated with the famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols, but from there the choice is wide-open–and happily includes many newer arrangements that bring wonderful new sounds, colors, harmonies, and sometimes even melodies and rhythms to old favorites by Willcocks, Gardner, Rutter, and others: Bob Chilcott’s My Dancing Day and Away in a Manger (with a lovely solo by Sheila Dietrich); Paul Halley’s What Child Is This? and The First Nowell; The holly and the ivy by Stuart Thompson (a positively jolly, rollicking waltz complete with the nattiest skating-rink-style organ you’ll ever hear!); Gerald Brown’s alternately eerie and etherial Gabriel’s Message; and Howard Skempton’s quick and clever Adam lay y-bounden, which has justifiably become a repertoire favorite over the last few years.
There are many more selections–18 in all–including Britten’s A Boy Was Born (the first movement/theme), Rutter’s There is a Flower, and Jan Sandström’s floating, chord-clustery Lo, how a rose e’er blooming (another piece that’s become very popular on recordings lately). Together they make an ideal Christmas program, but more than that, choral fans will appreciate the consummate choral artistry on display here. Rarely do we hear an ensemble so comfortable and seasoned as a group, so assured in technique, and so accomplished in a given set of repertoire. You don’t get perfectly executed yet unaffected phrasing like this nor such sectional vocal unity (listen to the beginning of Gabriel’s message–or My Dancing Day) from a mere collection of voices, no matter how good or capable the singers.
You may be just plain lucky to have such a phenomenal group of sopranos, but this kind of ensemble comes from years of refinement, from the devoted collaboration of compatible voices and personalities, and from exceptional direction. You can hear it in every note, chord, phrase (and soaring descant) throughout these performances–and let’s not forget the indispensable contribution of organist Michael Bloss, himself a frequent performing partner with Edison and the Elora Festival Singers. And when you hear all these forces come together in Paul Halley’s rousing, concluding The First Nowell, you’ll definitely be ready to repeat the whole performance–and possibly to begin making plans for your own trip to Elora.
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Recording Details:Album Title: The Wonder of Christmas
- Naxos - 8.573421