With all the frisson of a live recording, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s newest release A Celtic Christmas, from their 2013 Christmas concerts at Sydney’s City Recital Hall and released on the ABC Classics label (ABC 481 1317), is a refreshing collection of seasonal music that goes beyond traditional fare.
Paul Dyer’s indefatiguable capacity to curate a programme of unusual repertoire brings together 18 tracks comprising traditional hymns and carols, folk music, popular songs and instrumental items that span both the sacred and the secular. As is customary for their Christmas concerts , the orchestra, led from the harpsichord by Dyer is joined by the Brandenburg Choir and, on this occasion, soloist counter tenor Maximilian Reibl.
Dyer directs an ensemble of just 10 musicians and 30 SATB voices, the alto section composed exclusively of counter-tenors. The Celtic theme is represented by Irish, Welsh and Scottish music, alongside some Celtic inspired compositions as well as a few decidedly un-Celtic interlopers which provides for a rich variety of styles and moods. The anthology is also a showcase for the skills of arrangers and composers Alice Chance, Brandenburg soprano Meinir Thomas and Sydney saxophonist Christina Leonard.
The introductory bracket of three carols is by Englishmen Samuel Wesley, Orlando Gibbons and Richard Farrant. Wesley’s O Thou Who Camest from Above is a sensitive and inventive arrangement by Chance, introduced hauntingly by shimmering bells and Hümmelchen – an early German bagpipe – and plaintively intoned by Reibl, joined in full ecclesiastical harmony and descant by the choir. Contrasting polyphony and homophony follow with Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David and Farrants’ Lord, for Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake.
Two delightfully rustic Scottish instrumental items When She Came Ben She Bobbed and Gilliam Callum are followed by Ciaccona, the first of two works by Italian Nicola Matteis (b 1670).
Chance has lent her touch to two more works (The Wexford Carol/Anon and My Dancing Day/ Anon/Holst) and collaborated with Dyer and Tommie Andersson in a wistful arrangement of Arlen and Harburg’s Over the Rainbow, performed by Reibl – surely the first time it has been recorded by a counter-tenor!
The early repertoire is left behind as the focus continues with traditional and contemporary items – like the Welsh Suo Gan in an arrangement by Meinir Thomas originally written for the Swingle Singers; and the Irish Is Fada Fada Liom Uaim I, arranged by Christina Leonard, demonstrating a curiously satisfying synergy between the older musical form and the more contemporary saxophone which was not created until the middle of the 19th century. There is a touch of swing with Thomas’ arrangement of Santa Baby and smooth, soothing harmonies in White Christmas.
At the end, a return to purism with Silent Night performed as Stille Nacht, as it was written by Franz Gruber, first heard in 1818 and Sir David Willcocks’ much loved arrangement of O Come All ye Faithful whose origins have been lost in the mists of time.
Finally, a contemporary hymn, Raise Your Voices composed by the Norwegian Rolf Løvland who can lay claim to composing two Eurovision Contest winning songs and whose music has been championed by Barbra Streisand.
This is another excellent collection by Dyer and his forces – seasonal music and instruments from different times and places, fired by imagination and performed in style. A very worthy addition to the Christmas collection.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©