The London Phil. runs second only to the London Sym. in the success of assembling a house label that is filled with musical excellence, and often their programming is more offbeat than their rival's. Here we attend the orchestra's Christmas concert from 2009 under their young music director, the phenomenally talented Vladimir Jurowski. the mood is joyous, highlighted by a Bach cantata performance that seems celebratory and emotionally rich, a rarity in the long dry spell of HIP styling. Rather than crib from the orchestra's website, I might as quote it directly:
"The festival of Christmas is rich in music for worship and for concert performance, much of it rooted in seasonal hymns or traditional melodies. This recording of festive choral music includes one of Bach's richly scored cantatas and Mendelssohn's Christmas song Vom Himmel hoch which was inspired by his admiration for the music of Bach. Vaughan Williams's nativity play The First Nowell incorporates arrangements of many traditional English carols."
The choral and solo work (despite a few wobbly bits from the usually flawless baritone, Christopher Maltman) is first rate, as you'd expect from London, which is rich in great choral singing. I was delighted to find that Mendelssohn's cantata was such a festive takeoff of Bach's style, even if its plummy textures are unmistakably Victorian. The final chorus weaves Ein feste Burg into the festivities. consider this an upbeat addendum to the Reformation Sym. Just as new to me was Vaughan Williams' Christmas oratorio, The First Nowell, which embodies a kind of dignified but high-spirited crossover event that has been largely lost in pop culture; you are transported back to an age of choral festivals that is rooted in the era of Handel. A handful of the tunes are familiar carols, arranged without vulgarity or condescension. Vaughan Williams wasn't out to offer any complexities, yet he develops a touching atmosphere of mystery and inner joy. I was reminded in each work how solidly the form of the church cantata held for centuries of worship. The same ties no longer unite an entire society, but it was beautiful to hear them revived for an hour in music.