THE NAXOS BOOK OF CAROLS (Classic Christmas) (Antony Pitts/ Jeremy Summerly/ Tonus Peregrinus) (Naxos: 8.557330)
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The Naxos Book of Carols
Putting together a collection of carols at the beginning ofthe 21st Century is at once a daunting and a liberating task: tunes and wordsalike have acquired the privilege of tradition, but also its plasticity. Carolsare part of a living ritual which grows and evolves every generation:composers, singers, and listeners have each added their interpretations andmemories, which makes finding the 'authentic' version of a Christmas carolusually both hopeless and pointless. The melodies that have survived havemostly done so because they are great tunes, now indelibly associated with theevents of Christmas re-enacted and celebrated each year in church, on thestreet, in the pub and at home.
This collection is made up of 24 carols arranged in foursequences, each focusing on a different part of the Christmas story. Thearrangements are all new, commissioned by Naxos specially for this recording,and tread a careful line between familiarity and novelty. The customaryalternation of unaccompanied verses, descants and last-verse harmony has beenfollowed in most of the best-known carols; but there are also plenty ofsurprises to be unwrapped. The arrangements are designed for widespread use: itshould be possible to sing along with the tune in each verse, while the choralparts are almost never in more than the standard four: soprano, alto, tenor andbass. Scores of all the carols in The Naxos Book of Carols are available fromwww.naxoscarols.com in association with Faber Music.
The first sequence (tracks 1-5) outlines the two-edged themeof Advent (the season leading up through December to Christmas Eve): the hopeof the Messiah or the Christ who comes first in weakness to suffer, and finallyin glory to reign. O come, o come, Emmanuel  is a paraphrase of the sevenAdvent 'O' Antiphons in an arrangement coloured by the gradual developments inWestern harmony over the last two thousand years. Of the Father's heartbegotten  contrasts the eternal nature of the Son of God with the outworkingof prophecy at a specific point in Time; the tune is set alternately against asimple repeating bass-line and in three-, two- and four-part canon. O quicklycome  is a new carol in a lively 7/8 rhythm, reiterating with greaterurgency the pleas for the King to come. Verbum Patris umanatur, O, O  is are-working of a polyphonic mediaeval carol, resounding with joy at theextraordinary event of the Incarnation - God becoming Man. This Advent sequenceis crowned with the famous hymn Lo! He comes  in which the hopes of theancient prophets of Israel and the Church are ultimately rewarded.
The second sequence (tracks 6-12) brings together theannouncements of Christ's conception and birth, and those who witnessed themessage - both angels and shepherds. The holly and the ivy  finds hints inthe natural world of Jesus's suffering on the cross, with two traditional tunesintertwined (the little-known tune was written down from a tape in the BBCarchives). The symbolism of plants and their flowers is further explored in Lo,there a Rose is blooming . Alleluya - a new work  is a fresh take on alate-mediaeval carol with two angels answering each other across the heavens(here the husband-and-wife team of Joanna Forbes and Alexander L'Estrange). Therollicking tune of Ding! dong! merrily on high  is put through its paces asthe bells of heaven peal in celebration at the birth of the Saviour. Whileshepherds watched  is sung to one of its most familiar melodies, but with arough-hewn arrangement vaguely reminiscent of shape-note and other popularchoral styles. Following on immediately is The Song of Angels  - one ofOrlando Gibbons' exquisite tunes from Hymnes and Songs of the Church. All jointogether for Hark! the herald angels sing  in which the breathtakingconsequences of the Christmas story are elegantly summarised.
From the fields outside Bethlehem the shepherds hurry to seethe new-born baby lying in a manger: an unusual sight, surely, and the focus ofthe third sequence of carols (tracks 13-18). Silent night  is sung as alullaby, with the opening motif of the tune mirrored at various speeds in theother voices. Away in a manger , one of the most popular children's carols,reflects the humble setting of Jesus' birth. Another lullaby follows, and inthe final verse points forward from the intimate tranquillity of mother andchild to Calvary, where Mary will later see her son being executed: Baby Jesus,hush! now sleep . The well-known words of O little town of Bethlehem are clothed with a new tune, while the classic chorale tune O Jesulein s??ss isnewly-combined with the age-old words of Jesu dulcis memoria: Jesu, the verythought is sweet . The sequence ends as the worshippers, both ancient andmodern, meet to adore the new-born Saviour in O come, all ye faithful .
The King of Kings
In the final sequence of carols (tracks 19-24) the gaze iswidened to encompass all those who will come to adore, from little children tomighty kings. Personent hodie  is notable for the repeated syllables(particularly the \vir" of "virgineo" in the first verse), and in the finalverse includes the tune of the following track as an organ descant. In dulcijubilo  is a post-modern collage of settings by Praetorius, J. S. Bach andStainer, with similarly-juxtaposed words in Latin and English. Good KingWenceslas  introduces a king with little relation to the Christmas storyexcept for his Christ-like compassion; the musical setting is a straightforwardresponse to the narrative. In We three kings of Orient are  the "threekings" introduce themselves one by one (the Gospel refers, in fact, to "wisemen from the east"), and the three gifts point to Jesus as "King and God andsacrifice". I saw three ships come sailing in  is an example of a carolthat has weathered over time (in the case of the words, enough to obscure theiroriginal meaning) but the overall intent to rejoice is clear. The sequencecloses with a carol marrying traditional words (based on Psalm 72) with arecent tune: Hail to the Lord's Anointed . And so the Christmas story endswith a vision of the Messiah's return as King of kings to bring in everlastingpeace, as promised by the angels in the fields outside Bethlehem. MerryChristmas!
Many thanks to the Reverend Alan Walker and the congregationof St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. This recording is dedicated tovictims of persecution around the world, to all those unable to sing and worshipfreely.
Tonus Peregrinus has been making music since the foundationof the ensemble at New College, Oxford in 1990. The Latin term tonus peregrinuswas the name given to one of the Church's ancient psalm tones; in turn, thischant was based on a Jewish melody which may have been sung by Jesus and thedisciples after the Last Supper. This particular psalm tone was unusual in thatit had a different recitation tone in each half, hence its name: 'wanderingtone'; it was also known, despite its history, as the tonus novissimus, or the'newest tone'. TONUS PEREGRINUS combines these two characteristics in arepertoire that ranges far and wide from the Middle Ages to scores fresh fromthe printer, and an interpretative approach that is bold, fresh and of themoment (www.tonusperegrinus.co.uk). The ensemble's previous release on Naxosuniquely pairs the earliest complete polyphonic settings of the Mass and thePassion (The Mass of Tournai on Naxos 8.555861), while their debut recording ofArvo Part's Passio (