The full title of this album gives a good overview of its contents and artistic intent: the Christmas story told in chant, motets, dialogues and traditional folk carols. Listeners should be aware that it's not a playful CD of "fun" holiday music, but a serious, thoughtfully assembled collection of Christmas music spanning the history of the Western European tradition, from plainchant to contemporary anthems and arrangements made especially for this album. Its format is based loosely on the Anglican service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Theatre of Voices, a mixed vocal quartet supplemented by organ and theorbo (or guitar), sings four lessons, three Biblical stories in Baroque Italian settings, plus the traditional We Three Kings. The carols, traditionally sung by the choir or congregation at the Christmas Eve service, are sung a cappella by the chamber choir, Ars Nova Copenhagen. The performances, led by Paul Hillier, are absolutely first-rate. Theatre of Voices, an ensemble of soloists, sings with exquisite purity, intonation, blend, and balance. Ars Nova Copenhagen has the same outstanding musical strengths, but simply by virtue of the relative size of the group, it makes a dramatic contrast in its contributions, which take up the bulk of the album. In spite of its size -- only four singers on a part -- it produces a wonderfully robust sound. The variety of the repertoire and the exceptionally high performance standards make this an album that should be attractive to anyone looking for a quality survey of Christmas music through the ages. The sound of Harmonia Mundi's hybrid SACD is clean, well-balanced, and natural.
The Christmas Story Review
by Stephen Eddins