Friday, 23 December 2011

Lift up your heads...

Jessica Duchen recently put in a plea for something other than Handel's Messiah at this time of year:

But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough.

(Amusingly, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Messiah tonight and broadcast Bach's Christmas Oratorio last night.)

I can't say that I mind one bit that Messiah, the Christmas Oratorio and the rest keep coming around almost with the regularity of Merry Xmas Everybody, Fairytale of New York or Lonely this Christmas, but I'm all for adding to the list of seasonal favourites. Jessica offered an intriguing list of substitutes that have been "shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses" and inspired me to add a few suggestions of my own:  

Elizabethan composer William Byrd's Christmas motet is one of his loveliest pieces. There are many magical moments, including the lovely harmonic modulations during the fourths-based sequences at "et animalia", the attractive overlapping phrases at "Beata virgo" and the enchanting rising-scale figures at the setting of "Ave Maria". Byrd repeats the "Beats virgo" section at the end. 

From 17th Century Germany, Heinrich Schutz's style can be described (with the broadest of brush strokes) as half way between Monteverdi and Bach and his telling of the Christmas story is very special. Between its introductory and closing choruses come eight set piece 'interludes', connected by recitative from the tenor narrator. The Angel (sung by a soprano) has three movements accompanied by a pair of violas, the High Priests are accompanied by dark-sounding sackbutts  and the Shepherds are accompanied by recorders and a dulcian (an instrument that sounds like a bassoon), the latter also accompanying the Wise Men, along with violins, where its tread surely suggests camels! Herod (a bass) is accompanied by cornets. Particularly beautiful is the seventh interlude, 'Stehe auf Joseph' (for the Angel).

The 'pastoral symphonies' of Bach and Handel were just one of what seem like a multitude of such pieces, cropping up all over the later Baroque. I was going to choose Corelli's Christmas Concerto but, as that gem gets many airings, I thought I'd go for Torelli's less played Christmas Concerto instead. Lots of gorgeous string writing, lovely harmonic suspensions in the opening sections, pastoral drones beneath dancing tunes, arioso-like solo violin writing in the central slow section, plus echo effects in the finale - all good fun. Oh, what the heck, here's a link to the delicious Corelli concerto too!

Peter Cornelius, friend of Wagner and Liszt, wrote these six songs (most of which are scattered across YouTube) in 1856 and they have a charming homely quality that suits the season to a tee, with warm tunes and pleasing harmonies. I hear very little Wagner or Liszt in these songs but quite a bit of Schumann. One of the songs (which are for voice and piano), The Three Kings, became his best known piece when recast as a choral miniature. Especially winning are Die Hirten (the Shepherds) and Christkind.

A score drawn from a Gogol-based opera by a master of orchestral fantasy, this suite begins with an enchanting vision of Christmas Night, with sparkling snow and magical starlight. 

...about which I will have more to say in the future!

Fear not, said he, for this is a purely tonal arrangement of  the old German carol "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" for chamber ensemble that will warm the cockles of your heart like mulled wine. A second carol makes an appearance later in the piece but you'll have to listen to find out which one! The opening will (hopefully) immediately capture your heart and, though Schoenberg cannot resist the lure of intricate counterpoint later, his traditionalist impulses are lovingly revealed in this little unexpected gem.

It may be a work of youthful ingenuity (weaving a set of variations on the first four notes of the piece - a rising second followed by rising third followed by a falling third), but it easy-to-listen-to and a delight. There's the spiky rhythms of 'Herod', the rapturous ever-expanding melismas on the word 'Jesu' of the beautiful third variation and a hypnotic setting of 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter' that isn't to the famous tune by Holst!

Jessica Duchen chose the glorious Vingt Regards (for piano) for her wish-list. As I always loved this set of nine pieces for organ - and it's Messiaen's other big Christmas classic! - I would choose to add this to her list. Beginning with the glowing serenity of the opening vision of the Virgin and Child, contrasted with the joy of Mary at its heart, and the piping shepherds who then burst out dancing with delight, this is a work well worth a yearly airing (or two). 

As well as his familiar Fantasia on Christmas Carols, RVW wrote this unfamiliar large-scale Christmas cantata. It's not always very subtle (especially the 'March of the Three Kings') but it certainly is enjoyable. Much of its music is the composer at his most unbuttoned, banging out catchy tunes with thumping rhythms and primary-colours orchestration. There's plenty of jubilation, beginning with the Prologue with its hearty cries of 'Nowell!', as well as passages of grandeur, but there are also serene sections, such as the lovely unaccompanied (and very Anglican-sounding) 'The blessed Son of God' and the beautiful pastoral setting for baritone of Thomas Hardy's great poem The Oxen. 

Merry Christmas to you all!!

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