2001 Jan-Dec/Bells and Holly

The season to be jolly will soon be upon us and, since October, when the early Highveld rains produced the first crop of Christmas decorations in the shops, commercial preparations have been on the go. These move into high gear on the first of December when the mall manager slips the Boney M Christmas Album into the CD Player and puts a piece of sticky tape over the repeat button. If, like me, you have been in the Malls buying, rather than making, your gifts, you will need some musical relief from hearing “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas” for the hundredth time.

This relief can come in the form of two very different but equally excellent Christmas CD’s.

“Christmas with Thomas Hanson” (9031-73135-2) stands out above the welter of “Christmas with” CDs for two reasons. Thomas Hanson is a baritone and is accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Usually the soloist on this type of album is a soprano or tenor and they are ‘backed’ by a philharmonic or symphony orchestra with extra violins and cymbals. The interpretation in these albums is usually operatic and therefore lacks the warmth and the intimate impact that is unique to Christmas music. “Christmas with Thomas Hanson” captures the quieter Christmas spirit admirably.

The album is a compilation of international Christmas carols. Along with some of the best-loved English language carols, you will find the famous ‘O Holy Night’ (Cantique de Noel) which is magnificently rendered, and a couple of American carols like the fairly well know Appalachian carol “I wonder as I wander”.

Those looking for a smattering of Latin carols will not be disappointed: ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘Alleluia’ (Puer Natus in Bethlehem) are among the carols on the album.

Thomas Hanson is a famous “Lieder” singer and so it is not surprising that a number of German carols are included. This nicely balances the familiar with the unfamiliar and keeps the album fresh and interesting on each listening. The selection of carols ranges from the dramatic “Macht hoch die Tur” -Throw wide the Gates, the doors as well, The King of Glory comes to dwell – to the lyrical “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”, a Marian carol to Our Lady “The Rose that had Flowered”. Both ‘O Tannenbaum’ and Silent Night are sung in the original German. The rather awkward ‘O Christmas Tree’ has never carried the beauty of the original German Carol. On the other hand Silent Night translates well into English and it is a pity that the English version is not included on this album.

“Christmas with Thomas Hanson” is your best-bet if your are looking for an album that is full of the joy of Christmas and you will find yourself singing along to the more familiar carols. It is certainly the best Christmas mood album around and in a perfect world would displace Boney M from the mall CD player.

‘Adeste Fideles – Christmas Music from the Westminster Cathedral’ (CDA66668) by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral is a distinctively Catholic collection of Christmas Carols. This is by no means background Christmas cheer music. Rather it is a carefully crafted selection of carols that needs to be attentively listened to and meditated upon. Being for choir and organ only, the album has a more liturgical feeling.

This is enhanced by the backbone of the album being the familiar Christmas Carols of the Midnight Mass Carol service. An informative insert gives some interesting detail on all of these carols. For example, that both the words and music of ‘O come all ye Faithful’ were writing by John Francis Wade who was a member of the teaching staff at the exiled English College of Douai (The College of Bible-translation fame) in the 18th Century.

The rest of the album is full of surprises such as ‘A Maiden Most Gentle’ a clever combination of the words of The Venerable Bede and the very well-known tune of Our Lady of Lourdes (Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria).

The setting of the great Mass hymn ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’ is so memorable (and so harrowing) that I would buy this Album for that alone.

One aspect that you will not find in other Christmas Albums is the joy of Christmas mingled with the sorrow of the Cross. To bring this home, two carols with this theme are placed together. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is so well known that perhaps we miss the mention of blood, thorn and gall in the last three verses. This is placed after the less well-known ‘Bethlehem Down’ with its haunting words:
“When He is King we will give Him the King’s gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down

When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, wood for a crown,”

In thus positioning these magnificent and ancient carols, the poignancy of the contrast between the joyful tune of “The Holly and The Ivy” and the sorrowful foreshadowing of the Passion in the words is fully exposed.

If you are looking for a carol CD that has a truly Catholic Christmas spirit, you need not go further that ‘Adeste Fidelis’. Every carol whether it is the lively setting of “Welcome Yule” – “Welcome be ye Stephen and John, Welcome Innocents ev’ry one” of the plaintive cry of the faithful in “O come, O come Emmanuel” carries the deep significance of Christmastide.

Both, for very different reasons, are highly recommended.