Best From Christmas Past: I SING THE BIRTH

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

There may be a better vocal Christmas disc to come along this season, but it would have to be awfully impressive to best this beautifully sung, imaginatively programmed effort from the male-quartet New York Polyphony. As the liner notes point out, Christmas uniquely brings together a hugely diverse range of musical styles and traditions, and this program reflects that diversity while maintaining the integrity of a unified program, in both atmosphere (amazingly, recorded in a church in the middle of New York!) and in the prevailing medieval/Renaissance sensibility of even the modern pieces. Of course the four singers have much to do with creating and sustaining the mood and imbuing the works with particular interpretive flavor–these are ideally matched, sensitively balanced voices, warm yet vibrant in the tradition of groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble. And the singing is impeccable–the breathing, the phrasing, all of the ensemble work shows musicians at one with each other and with the music at hand.

The repertoire is unusual, but not just for the sake of offering something “different”; there is purpose here in revealing the threads of early chant, medieval harmony, and Renaissance polyphony strung through to the most recent works, including one commissioned for this recording. Even ancient texts appear in the more modern pieces, including Kenneth Leighton’s Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child, the only selection on the program (other than the “Coventry Carol”) that enjoys a relatively frequent presence on today’s Christmas choral concerts and recordings. Here (and on a few other pieces) the men are joined by three women, one of whom is original Anonymous 4 member Ruth Cunningham, and unlike most other renditions, this one seems inspired a bit more by the work’s jazz-like elements. As for the Coventry Carol, the four men somehow manage to juice the famous points of dissonance with even more delicious bite than usual.

Other highlights include the opening number, Andrew Smith’s ravishing recent setting of Veni Redemptor gentium, which begins with the chant but, almost before you realize what’s happening, transforms to a marvelous harmonic texture that ingeniously mixes ancient and new. Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est, Byrd’s O magnum mysterium, and Cornysh’s starkly-harmonious, lively-rhythmic Ave Maria Mater Dei are all sung with utmost sensitivity, clarity, and virtuosity. Parsons’ Ave Maria is a masterpiece and in its simple way, so is New York Polyphony’s very lovely setting of Away in a manger–a performance you’ll want to repeat many times. In fact, that applies to this entire expertly recorded disc, which offers many more pleasures too numerous to mention here, but that hopefully you’ll soon discover for yourself. [10/24/2007]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: I SING THE BIRTH

Carols, chants, modern works & arrangements of Christmas vocal music by Palestrina, Byrd, Clemens, Parsons, Pérotin, Leighton, Cornysh, Davies, others -


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