A Christmas Present from Polyphony (CD Review - Classics Today.com, 2004)

This Christmas collection from the esteemed vocal ensemble Polyphony is a compilation from several of the group's existing recordings, plus one work--Morten Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium--from a CD to be issued next spring (2005). Simply put, lovers of Christmas choral music will want/need/have to have this, even though many of the 19 selections have been recorded multiple times in very good performances by dozens of excellent choirs. But this is the nature of Christmas music: if you love it, the joy comes from hearing it in as many different forms as possible, from the dearly familiar to the unusual--or from simply experiencing the unique sound and interpretive manner of yet another group of singers and/or players.

Of course, Polyphony is one of the world's best choral groups, so we can expect first-rate singing and exemplary renditions of these arrangements and original pieces. Highlights include Grieg's beautiful motet Ave maris stella, Pärt's Magnificat, Leighton's Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child, and the Lauridsen work, which has become a modern classic, a favorite with choirs and audiences since its premiere in 1994. You could even argue that Stephen Layton and Polyphony manage a performance of Rutter's Nativity Carol that's better than Rutter's own with his Cambridge Singers. But that would be unnecessary--after all, Christmas music aficionados will happily own both! The rarest work here is Britten's Chorale after an Old French Carol, a craggy setting of a text by Auden, with harmonies that range from stark to sumptuously romantic. The sound is mostly very fine, but some tracks are a bit harsh on the high end; each selection is listed with full text and a reference to the recording from which it was taken. Highly recommended.

David Vernier

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