CD Review: New York Polyphony's Sing Thee Nowell

New York Polyphony
Early Music America

Most serious singers can't avoid earning their bread with music for Advent and Christmas, and this becoming jaded by the incessant repetition of the usual suspects for the season. (I confess!) Thus it takes exceptional discernment and good taste for a vocal ensemble to launch a seasonal program that does not disappoint. No such problem here. This is an outstanding disc combining beautiful performances with fresh and interesting compositions, both from the Renaissance and our own days.

The collection begins chastely with the familiar tune of Veni Emmanuel, but the chords that set "Gaude!" are dissonant, strong, beautiful, and modern. Congratulations, Andrew Smith! I would love to hear more of your work. The other modern works on the program include compositions and arrangements by Geoffrey Williams, Alexander Craig, John Scott, Michael McGlynn, Peter Warlock, and the Five Carols by Richard Rodney Bennett. The early music includes motets by Philippe Verdelot (Gabriel archangelus), Thomas Byttering (Nesciens mater), Richard Pygot (Quid petis), Tomás Luis de Victoria (O magnum mysterium), and Jacob Clemens (Magi veniunt). It is difficult for me to generate high enough praise for the performances of the ensemble's four exceptional male singers. Each individual voice is beautifully produced, and the blend and tuning are exemplary. The tempos are well considered, and even when slow (especially when slow), the lines are shaped, sustained, and spun out in a manner that only those who also sing can know is as difficult as it is masterful. Every piece the group touches is golden. The Byttering makes me yearn for a whole disc of English 15th-century polyphony (Old Hall, please?). In a just world, this quartet would have a MacArthur "genius" grant and perform at the White House. Here's hoping.