Paul Hillier’s arrangements are unfailingly sensitive (Christmas Story CD)
02.12.11, The art desk
The Christmas Story: Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen/Hillier (Harmonia Mundi)
This lovely disc offers a Danish take on the traditional English carol service. The readings aren’t included, but we get a sequence of 23 numbers, some familiar, cannily structured so as to tell the Christmas story. They’re drawn from a huge range of sources, from medieval plainchant to a few 20th-century pieces. Of these, the most striking is Howard Skempton’s haunting Adam lay y-bounden, which like this composer’s other work manages to sound both archaic and contemporary at the same time. This needs to be listened to in sequence, in one go, and following the texts leads to a pretty profound, immersive experience. Paul Hillier’s arrangements of traditional carols are unfailingly sensitive; the highlights being a radiant version of the Italian "Dormi, dormi o bel bambino" and an account of "Liebe hirten" underpinned by bell sounds in tenor and bass projected with, err, gusto.
Choral duties are shared between Hillier’s own Theatre of Voices who sing the three Baroque dialogues, each one almost an operatic scene in miniature. Ars Nova Copenhagen sing the larger-scale pieces, with an unerring ability to sound idiomatic despite the diverse range of languages and musical styles. As you’d expect, they’re most at home in Niles Gade’s sweet setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s "Barn Jesus I en krybbe lå". Ars Nova close proceedings with an immaculate a cappella version of "We Wish you a Merry Christmas". Harmonia Mundi's sound is exemplary, with just the right amount of reverberation.