Trust Harry Christophers and The Sixteen to get to the heart of the matter. This selection of 22 carols is an engaging mix of old and new, sung unaccompanied and without the cloying sentimentality that often mars the Christmas season and threatens to make a mockery of a story that could have particular resonance in our own age of mass human displacement. Here we have singing that conveys wonderment and joy, but also empathetically touches on the less glamorous aspects of the human condition.
The older carols are not necessarily well known. As Christophers notes, some are out fashion, but none the worse for that. Traditional compositions such as This endris night with its catchy tune together with the Somerset Carol and the Gallery Carol both of which evoke innocent merriment, are all worth reviving, while better known 20th-century favourites such as Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and Henry Walford Davies’ O little town of Bethlehem have an appealing intimacy.
A welcome stylistic variety informs the choice of newer carols. Whether it is the close harmony of Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium, the subtle but effective motoric minimalism of Howard Skempton’s Adam lay ybounden or the postmodern archaisms of Cecilia McDowall’s Now may we singen, the texts are always tellingly set. Even John Rutter demonstrates that “less is more” in There is a flower. Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherd’s Carol and James MacMillan’s O radiant dawn are given haunting performances.
St Alban’s, Holborn provides a suitably resonant atmosphere to enhance the group’s wonderfully clear singing, also allowing for generous shaping of phrases and relaxed delivery of text. If you’re going to buy only one Christmas CD this year, make it this one.