Best of Christmas Past: John Rutter–Music For Christmas

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Most of John Rutter’s fans are familiar with the story about the creation of the Christmas anthem What Sweeter Music, a piece that has become not only his most famous, but also a virtual standard with church, community, and school choirs around the world. It seems that back in 1988, Stephen Cleobury, director of Cambridge’s King’s College Choir, had a musical “gap” in his plan for the annual service of lessons and carols. The gap occurred around the “Three Kings” reading and Cleobury asked Rutter if he would write something for the choir on this theme. Rutter chose the Robert Herrick poem because he felt it said exactly what needed to be said about “the gift of music.” The composer, who was thinking only of the specific and highly trained voices of King’s as he wrote, was as surprised as anyone to realize the work’s eventual unqualified success. (“I never thought for a moment it would sell,” he told me in an interview a few years ago.)

Needless to say, that piece is among the 22 selections presented on this outstanding disc containing much of Rutter’s best Christmas music, both original works and arrangements. Of course, the varied program offers abundant evidence of Rutter’s special talent for the memorable melody and nifty harmonic settings–pieces such as What Sweeter Music, There is a Flower, Candlelight Carol, Nativity Carol, and Wild Wood Carol (part of Rutter’s musical setting of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows). There are also sufficient examples of his more syrupy, schmaltzy side, the one that leads some snootier types to dismiss him for daring to cater to the masses. Well, I can’t say I’m equally fond of a classic such as What Sweeter Music and the unashamedly pop-ish Jesus Child or Angel Tidings or the awfully “cute” Donkey Carol, which reminds me of something you’d hear on those television variety shows in the 1950s and ’60s.

But if truth be told, there’s not a serious composer alive who’d not envy Rutter’s success–and the fact is, Rutter is completely honest about and comfortable with what he does. (“I decided a very long time ago that I was not a path breaker in composition,” he modestly stated in that abovementioned interview. “Some people are called to voyages of discovery; others are consolidators, or eclectics. But I’ve always been happiest just taking the sounds in the air around me and weaving them into something of my own.”) And if you look closely, you see that Rutter does what all composers should: he serves his audiences, all of them, from his more complex and difficult works such as the double-choir Hymn to the Creator of Light to, well, Shepherd’s Pipe Carol or any of his popular traditional carol arrangements.

Rutter has recorded most of these pieces with his Cambridge Singers for Collegium, and you won’t find better versions than those. However, it’s worth having this particular compilation that features a preponderance of his more “popular” tunes and settings as well as a few that are rarely heard (the notes give interesting details of these). My only programming question is why one of Rutter’s finest pieces, the very beautiful Christmas Night, was left off this disc. The performances are uniformly excellent; Stephen Layton and his Polyphony vocal ensemble have shown a previous affinity for Rutter’s work and this effort simply reaffirms their commitment to and love for this very special music. The recording captures choir and the various orchestral forces at their best in the favorable acoustics of London’s All Saints Church, Tooting. No, this is not “path-breaking” music; but, as one commentator said, it’s become part of the “soundtrack” to the Christmas season. Enjoy! [10/28/2001]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Christmas Night, Christmas w/Cambridge Singers, Christmas Day in the Morning (Collegium)

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