‘The Silver Stars at Play’ from Primae Facie Records features 23 world premiere carol recordings. At over 70 minutes it is a generous programme, with a cross-section of both significant and lesser-known mostly British composers. These include the likes of John McCabe, Peter Maxwell Davies, Sadie Harrison and Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Each work is about two to six minutes long. Most are performed without accompaniment.
Writing Christmas music can, of course, be a tricky proposition for a contemporary composer—it’s not exactly a season that encourages innovation or self-expression. Happily the majority of the pieces retain a sense of individuality, regardless of the Christmas brief.
Several stand out, not all of them the big names. Paul Ayres’ Hodie Christus natus est provides an arresting and contrapuntally vigorous opening to the programme. It builds to a very satisfying climax. Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s This Time is Born a Child is an essay in how to do quiet simplicity, with enough harmonic individuality to avoid being a medieval pastiche. Andrew Cusworth’s Of a rose synge we has a ravishing Tavener-like simplicity that nevertheless takes some unexpected harmonic turns. Phillip Cooke’s Susanni has a ritualistic feel that builds convincingly on its dialogue between solo voices and choir. Perhaps my favourite was Sadie Harrison’s As-salāmu ‘alaykum Bethlehem, a riot of sound that bows least to the saccharine tendencies of the season. Even whilst pushing the harmonic envelope the result feels like a great shout of joy.
The recorded sound on the recording is excellent, the choral textures easy to separate even whilst the acoustic of St. Ann’s Church, Manchester gives a satisfying bloom to the whole. Those expecting polite and colourless performances of the sort one might expect to hear on Christmas Eve from King’s will be disappointed; the singing is full-blooded and pretty fruity at times. There are some problems here and there with blend and intonation. These are not deal-breakers, however, especially as the choir also comes with real strengths, not least its thrilling power at climaxes. Props too to director Elspeth Slorach for guiding the choir through so many diverse works with such evident stylistic understanding.
Good collections of contemporary Christmas music are surprisingly hard to come by, so ‘The Silver Stars at Play’ is a welcome addition to the discography. If you’re looking for the perfect contemporary music stocking-filler, here it is.