Hely-Hutchinson, etc.: Christmas Carol Symphonies

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

[Re-post from 2003] There’s nothing like Christmas to bring out a composer’s more unapologetically clever and enthusiastically indulgent, prodigiously inventive ideas, in apparent realization of childhood’s most extravagant fantasies and enchanted imaginings, to say nothing of providing a wonderful excuse for an artist to simply go happily and uninhibitedly wild. The collection of Christmas-inspired orchestral “fantasies” on this CD is certain to become one of your favorite holiday listening traditions as you join these five composers in an upbeat–and sometimes unconventional–celebration of some of the season’s most familiar Christmas carols and songs.

Of course, you can treat the material in a variety of ways, from the more straightforward yet impressively adroit fantasias on easily recognizable (if often rhythmically or melodically altered) tunes offered in Bryan Kelly’s five-movement Improvisations on Christmas Carols to Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s more deliberate attempt at symphonic style and structure in A Carol Symphony, where he actually incorporates carols such as Adeste fideles, God rest ye merry gentlemen, The Coventry Carol, The first nowell, and Here we come a-wassailing into a legitimate four-movement theme-and-development framework

At the program’s mid-point we’re treated to a string-orchestra arrangement (by composer and liner-note writer Philip Lane) of Peter Warlock’s famed carol Bethlehem Down, followed by Lane’s own three-movement Wassail Dances from 1973. This latter work shows a fine command of orchestral color and a healthy respect for the power of rhythm and momentum. Finally, we hear Patric Standford’s A Christmas Carol Symphony, a big, robust, ruddy-cheeked tribute to this most happy and optimistic of holidays that proudly and relentlessly exerts its sparkling, brassy, brightly colored atmosphere through a mélange of at least a dozen carols, from Deck the hall and Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen to Ding dong merrily on high, The holly and the ivy, and We wish you a merry Christmas. The City of Prague Philharmonic proves a first-rate interpreter of these scores, conveying all the music’s exuberance and spirit with flawless technical prowess and Technicolor-grade contributions from the winds and brass.

Conductor Gavin Sutherland deserves credit for inspired leadership in these all-too-rarely performed works–any one of which would make a guaranteed audience-pleasing addition to a holiday concert. Having these together on one CD is truly a gift worthy of the season it celebrates. And Naxos complements the whole production with top-grade sound. Adeste fidelis! [11/1/2003]

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Recording Details:

BRYAN KELLY - Improvisations on Christmas Carols
PETER WARLOCK - Bethlehem Down (arr. Philip Lane)
PHILIP LANE - Wassail Dances
PATRIC STANDFORD - A Christmas Carol Symphony

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