I’ve said this before: in the real estate world, the three most important things are location, location, location; in the world of concert performance, they are programming, programming, programming. And it’s surprising how often an unimaginative, ill-conceived program fatally undermines a performance–or recording–even by the most accomplished artists. No worries here: Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s artistic director Matthew Guard knows something about the importance of programming, and how to achieve excellence in the process.
Although the fundamental concept for this recording may not be entirely unique–it’s structured around Hugo Distler’s seven variations on the tune Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming)–Guard’s choice of “filler” material is a thoughtful and varied mix of rarely heard (or newly-recorded) gems (Gregorio Allegri’s motet Salvatorem expectamus; Giovanni Nanino’s Salve Regina; Georges Dupuy de Méry’s Marie berçant l’Enfant Jésus) and well-loved but not yet overworked Christmas favorites (A spotless rose by Howells; Pierre Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge; Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down; Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree).
And throughout, the singing, by Skylark’s 12 voices–described in the notes as “a premier ensemble of leading American vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and music educators”–which is apparently based in the Boston area, is of the highest standard for any area or any repertoire. Anyone who appreciates first-class vocal ensemble performance will happily hear this–and hear it again and again, made even more attractive by the uniformly excellent soloists featured on several selections.
For me the only misstep–and I admit that this truly is a very personal one–is the inclusion of a piece by John Tavener–thankfully not the usual, and very overworked choice, The Lamb, but a lesser-known one, Today the Virgin. Other than his success in marketing himself as some sort of visionary mystic, I’ve never understood Tavener’s appeal as a composer. Similar to a robot operating at an Amazon warehouse, Tavener is not really a composer; he’s a packager who puts things, in this case repetitive, catchy musical items, in a box, tacks tape around it, and sends it off. No problem: the Tavener piece is only two and a half minutes out of a nearly 50-minute program. And you may like it, aside from my little rant.
It’s unfortunate that with every Christmas season comes a set of world-class Christmas-themed recordings–which are only offered and promoted during a precious few weeks, and are presumably only listened to for a month or so and then retired to a shelf until maybe next year. Here’s a Christmas-themed disc that easily can come down from the shelf and enjoy a place among your routine listening choices throughout the year. I loved it. Strongly recommended.