Vaughan Williams, Mendelssohn and Bach
The First Nowell
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Christmas concept album is nearly as old as the recording process, but few make a decent musical meal of it. The LPO and Choir provide serious nourishment while opening our ears to the sort of Christmas music that gets overlooked amid the tinsel.
Vaughan Williams’s “First Nowell”, a medley of songs dressed in glowing orchestral and choral colours, may be the lightest piece on the disc, but it’s a welcome reminder of how English composers of the past century, like their continental predecessors, reached beyond the commercial opportunities of Christmas to find genuine inspiration in its message.
Vladimir Jurowski makes an unlikely but worthy VW champion. His Bach – the Cantata No 63 “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag”, which the composer performed on at least two Christmas days in Leipzig, despite the absence of Nativity references in the text – sounds old-fashioned next to Gardiner or Koopman, but the reading is well blended and musical. Mendelssohn’s “Vom Himmel hoch” is also worth hearing, not just because of its Bachian inspiration but for its hymnal melodies and chorales.
All in all, this is a programme combining enterprise and tradition, to be enjoyed during the Christmas season and beyond.