There is some dispute over when Christmas decorations should be taken down; notwithstanding the customary crop of sad individuals who are rolled out every year on television magazine programmes to claim that they celebrate Christmas every day of the year. Common belief is that 12th night - the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th – is the time when the decorations go into hiding. However, when I was a student we used to frequent a pub run by devout Catholics who maintained that Christmas only properly ended at the Feast of Candlemas - February 2nd – and studiously left their decorations up until then. There was something infinitely depressing about Christmas decorations hanging on so far beyond Christmas, especially in a pub where the atmosphere was badly polluted by cigarette smoke (smoking was not so much allowed as positively expected in pubs in those heady days).
Always a fan of Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers, I have to
say I think they excelled themselves with their Christmas CD this year. Released on the Naxos label (titled A Winter's Light and with the catalogue number 8.573030), it is an object
lesson in how to create atmosphere and warmth within the tiny time-frame of 20
Christmassy songs. One of the longest
things here is Walford Davies’s mini-cantata O little Town of Bethlehem (with an amazingly fragile sounding
Susan Waton intoning the extended soprano solo introduction) which lasts all of
five and half minutes – exceeded only on the disc by Harold Darke’s eternally
lovely In the Bleak Mid-Winter which
runs a full 10 seconds more. I am profoundly impressed by their relaxed, discreet and beautifully measured account of Howells’s divine Sing Lullaby, while my all-time favourite Christmas carol, Pierre Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge, gets about the most spine-tinglingly gorgeous performance imaginable. God forbid, I am even impressed by their soothing account of Rutter’s Nativity Carol (although here my admiration is focused more on Martin Ford’s beautifully sympathetic accompaniment on the awkward-sounding organ of Tonbridge School), and as for the glutinous pops from Bob Chilcott, Gabriel Jackson and the gang, even they exude a pleasing luminosity in these superb performances. Most interestingly, the handful of really silly numbers – including a mock-swingle Jingle Bells arranged by Ben Parry and a pseudo-Spiritual version of I Believe in Father Christmas with unapologetic references to Prokofiev by Jonathan Rathbone – do not stick in the throat as they usually would. The music is often pretty dire, but as an object lesson in how musical drivel can be elevated by a sensitive and intelligent performance, this is a priceless disc.
Those feelings of depression are re-ignited whenever I hear Christmas music after Christmas. It has always saddened me that the plethora of fine, warm and evocative music so welcoming in the run up to Christmas, seems so hollow and out of place almost as soon as Boxing Day is over; all that effort for so little exposure! I am especially conscious of the ephemeral quality of so much Christmas music when I get down to my post-Christmas cataloguing of CDs. Always the recipient of several dozen Christmas discs, it’s only in early January that I get round to cataloguing them and putting them on shelves, and while, in the usual course of events, whenever I do my cataloguing I usually dip into the discs to pass the time while undertaking the onerous duty of typing everything into the database, I studiously avoid listening when doing the Christmas discs. It’s all just too depressing.This year I was obliged to listen through 2447 minutes and 52 seconds’ worth of Christmas CDs in the run up to December 25th. That was not exceptional. Nor was the fact that one of those discs (totalling 73 minutes and 48 seconds) got singled out for special honours and spent the week of Christmas on my CD player. What is exceptional is that I am still listening to it. Unquestionably it belongs purely to Christmas, but it is just too lovely simply to go back on the shelf and rot away until I decide to pull it out next December, so it’s going to be there until Candlemas.