John Rutter's Carols Herald the Season

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In the world of choral music, John Rutter is Mr. Christmas: the most prolific and commercially successful carol composer alive. He has written dozens of carols and arranged a similar number. His larger-scale works -- notably the Gloria (1974), Requiem (1985) and Magnificat (1990) -- are also well-known in the choral repertoire. The four volumes of Carols for Christmas, which he edited with conductor Sir David Willcocks, remain standard texts.

But if you're not familiar with Rutter's work -- he remains better-known in his native England -- don't fret. A new collection called The Colors of Christmas provides a fine starting point. The composer leads the Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a festive mix of original material and arrangements.

A disciple of the English choral tradition, Rutter has a knack for the big flourish. His treatment of “Once in Royal David’s City,” for instance, builds to a brass climax slightly reminiscent of "Star Wars." Similarly, he takes David Willcocks’ already grand versions of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark, the Herald Angels” and adds some extra fanfares. He adds some extra counterpoint to "Joy to the World" and jazzes up “Ding Dong! Merrily On High” with syncopated rhythms and twinkly percussion.

Yet many other Rutter arrangements are appropriately simple and unadorned, including “Away in a Manger,” “Deck the Hall” and “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” Of the composer’s original compositions, we hear his early “Star Carol,” a catchy and appealing melody, full of a touching emotional naivety, and the well-crafted eponymous song in a triple meter.

With 23 tracks and 70 minutes of music, it’s a good feast of holiday cheer, and the orchestra and singers are in winning form.

The Colors Of Christmas
John Rutter, Bach Choir, Royal Philharmonic
Over the Bridge (guest singers)
Available at Arkivmusic.com

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