London Philharmonic Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: First Nowell; Bach: Cantata 63; Mendelssohn: Vom Himmel Hoch

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This live recording featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir was made at a concert of Christmas-themed music at London's Royal Festival Hall in 2009. Bach didn't write this cantata for Christmas and it doesn't explicitly refer to the Nativity, but he is known to have used it on Christmas, and it does have an appropriately festive and celebratory tone. Mendelssohn wrote Von Himmel Hoch, which he described as a "Christmas song," under the strong influence of Bach, and it skillfully integrates contrapuntal rigor with gorgeously evocative Romantic orchestration. Vaughan Williams never completed his nativity play, The First Nowell, and the music from it presented here is essentially a very sophisticated suite of carol arrangements. It's an attractive program, but the quality of the performances keeps it from being one that necessarily invites repeated listening. The mike placement and/or engineering make the chorus sound somewhat distant and its sound lacks clarity and definition, a real problem in with contrapuntal sections. The soloists, all of whom are very fine, sometimes spectacular singers, deliver uneven performances. Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose and tenor Andrew Staples, the least familiar names and who are heard only in the Bach, make the most impressive contributions. Christopher Maltman, usually an exceptionally solid baritone, is hobbled by a troublesome vibrato that is particularly unnerving in the Mendelssohn. Lisa Milne offers sensitive, thoughtful interpretations, but she sometimes sounds thin and underpowered, falling short of the wonderful singing of which she has elsewhere demonstrated herself so capable. Maltman and Milne sound more secure in the Vaughan Williams than in the older works. Vladimir Jurowski's readings are routine and not particularly idiomatic, with the Bach coming across as square and blocky. The Vaughan Williams is the most impressively performed, and since it is so rarely recorded, this is a release that could be of interest to the composer's fans.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Cantata 63: Christen, Ätzet Diesen Tag
1 5:55
2 3:01
3 6:03
4 0:48
5 4:08
6 1:00
7 6:39
Vom Himmel Hoch
8 4:39
9 2:07
10 0:46
11 3:24
12 1:00
13 1:51
The First Nowell
14 3:37
15 1:44
16 1:57
17 2:00
18 1:34
19 2:28
20 2:25
21 1:27
22 1:08
23 3:11
24 0:47
25 5:56
blue highlight denotes track pick