On Friday night with the temperature hovering at 37 degrees, the Pawling Concert Series featured New York Polyphony, four handsome men singing Christmas four-part harmonies in All Saints Chapel at Trinity-Pawling School campus. This program of accomplished singers, who have performed in England and Europe, highlighted early Renaissance as well as contemporary arrangements. The songs selected were in Latin and English, rather narrowly focused on the Roman Catholic and Episcopal tradition. They often sing at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
This two-time Grammy nominated group, consisting of countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, and bass Craig Philips, expertly blended in a tapestry of smooth, haunting voices. Of particular note were: the sixteenth century “Gabriel Archangelus,” “There is no Rose” from the Trinity Roll MS, and the early, ever-popular seventeenth century “O magnum mysterium” by T.L. Da Victoria.
The latter half of the program focused on contemporary songs. “Adam lay ybounden” by countertenor Geoffrey Williams” offered svelte, trancelike harmonies. “I saw three ships” by Ralph Vaughan Williams provided humorous relief with the story of three ships sailing into Bethlehem, a song Williams composed to cheer up his English soldier comrades in Greece during World War I. “Un flambeau Jeanette Isabella,” the lyrics of which were written for this quartet and arranged by Alexander Craig, was a novel success and deserves wider circulation. Alexander Craig also did a superb job in arranging James Joyce’s sensitive lullaby “Sleep now.” The closing two numbers were also arranged by Alexander Craig, the pen name of Philip Craig, the bass and leader of the quartet.
I was mildly disappointed that there was only the one song from the French tradition (new and lovely as it was) and none from the German, yet the performance from this immensely talented ensemble was faultless in diction, pacing, emotion, and nuanced volume. They have performed on BBC radio and American television. If you are pinched for a last minute Christmas gift, I highly recommend “Sing Thee Nowell” listed at their website: http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com/discography.
Perhaps the most elaborately arranged word in the Western musical tradition remains Alleluia, partly because of its meaning and attractive aspiration, partly for its concise assonance and alliteration.