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New York Polyphony's Quiet Seasonal Treasure 'Sing Thee Nowell'

12.01.14
New York Polyphony
WQXR

By Daniel Stephen Johnson

The Christmas season and New York Polyphony, a four-man choir specializing in sacred music, are a match made in heaven.

One of the high points of the Christian liturgical calendar, these weeks have given us a massive treasury of choral repertoire dating back centuries—it may be the one time of year when lay listeners are most likely to get modal hymn-tunes stuck in their heads—and in fact, New York Polyphony's debut, 2007's "I Sing the Birth," was a recital of Christmas music, received to rapturous acclaim for its brilliant musicianship and avoidance of holiday kitsch.

Seven years later, New York Polyphony's released their second Christmas record, "Sing Thee Nowell," and it showcases the same qualities critics have been crowing about for the last seven years. The sound is impeccably blended, but warm and robust, and the program spans centuries, from venerable Christmas favorites to subtle, sophisticated new compositions and arrangements created for the ensemble.

At the album's heart are five carols arranged by Richard Rodney Bennett, a New York-based, English composer whose death on Christmas Eve 2012 was deeply felt by a cadre of devoted listeners. But the quartet, with guest sopranos Sarah Brailey and Elizabeth Baber Weaver, navigates Bennett's rich six-part harmonies as elegantly as they do the spacious and limpid O Magnum Mysterium of Roman School composer Tomás Luis de Victoria.

There is something inexplicably consoling about listening to a cappella voices in the winter months, and like a burning candle, the sound of New York Polyphony provides a small, gentle warmth and light inside that just seems to fit when the nights outside grow long and dark, and the days are short, blustery and frigid. The intimacy and loveliness of this music, in these performances, make this album a quiet seasonal treasure.