The second of my seasonal favourites is an arrangement. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is a somewhat humdrum affair, but the fifth movement, ‘Pieds-en-l’air’ (the melody of which began life in a 16th-century book of Renaissance dances), stands out for the quality of its high lyricism. Some years ago, composer Andrew Carter made this music the vehicle for a delicate Christmas text of his own devising:
Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my king,
Lullaby my lording whom I sweetly sing.
Slumber softly, slumber on your mother’s arm;
She will rock you, she will keep you safe from harm.
Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my son.
Lullaby my child in whom God’s will is done.
Be at peace, soft dreams beguile you as you lie;
I will rock you, I will sing a lullaby.
Warlock’s original is practically a vocalise anyway, but in this new context loses its faintly bucolic air and becomes something genuinely magical, a smooth, unhurried lullaby beautifully coloured by his piquant harmonies (which Carter has left untouched). The two verses are harmonised differently, the first relatively static, the second much more adventurous; their undeniable sweetness is tempered by some tart twists here and there, especially in the latter verse, and unlike much Christmas music, never becomes saccharine.
There are several recordings of this fine arrangement but, at present, only two are worth serious consideration. The first is on the disc What Sweeter Music by Consortium, released in 2004; a curious album to say the least—some of the tracks sound as though they were recorded from a distance in some vast cave—and the rendition of this piece (directed by Edward Barbieri) is slow bordering on ponderous, but they get away with it; it certainly allows one to revel in the gorgeous chord progressions, and the intonation throughout is superb. It’s available both on CD and as a lossless download direct from the label, as well as on iTunes. Best of all, though, is the recording by Polyphony on their album A Christmas Present, also released in 2004, and easily one of the most outstanding CDs of Christmas choral music ever released. Conducted by Stephen Layton, their performance could not be more perfect; captured in an acoustic resonant enough to give the singers space but without muddying the harmony, the singers positively float through their respective lines—particularly the sopranos, whose high final note is just effortless.