Do not, whatever you do, assume that this is just a Christmas album. There is no hint of holly, tinsel or sleighbells anywhere near this CD. I play this album year-round, because it contains some of the most sublime music in my collection. The pieces may have been chosen because they are about the nativity, but that is just the thread which holds the album together. Unless your Latin is considerably better than mine, it won’t sound out of place in the height of summer. But, as this is the December choice, let me nevertheless commend this seasonal delight to you.
While all the content is acapella choral music, the pieces are varied in scope, medieval polyphony interspersed with 19th and 20th century music, some by still-living composers. What they have in common (apart from the Christmas thing) is an extraordinary degree of clarity, control, and emotional intensity. Particular favourites are tracks 4, 6, 8 and 10, all by modern composers, John Tavener, Morten Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre and Francis Poulenc repectively, but offerings from William Byrd, Palestrina, and other more venerable composers, are far from eclipsed.
It would be fair to say that any old CD player could hardly fail to sound beautiful with such glorious, and well-recorded music; but for that beauty to be elevated to the realms of the numinous takes a little more effort. My Puccini shows that the individual voices are better resolved, timing improves so that the tiny inflections, hesitations, entrances and exits all arrive just-so. Pitch is more clearly defined (no real reason to assume any vagueness in pitch is due to the fact that the singers are unaccompanied – the Rodolphus Choir is rather better than that), and while the music rarely exhibits sudden dynamic shifts, nor does it get very loud, a better player clearly portrays the way the choir is controlling the energy levels within the performance – louder isn’t just louder, it is more intense.
The performance is extraordinary, and beautifully captured in a natural church acoustic by a superlative recording. I’m not one for Christmas albums, as a rule, but missing this one for no better reason than that it has ‘Christmas’ in the title would be a huge shame.