We all know about the Christmas Creep: that phenomenon of Christmas celebrations inching earlier and earlier into the year. There’s something a little unsettling about seeing Christmas decorations in the aisles of stores before Halloween. What happened to the halcyon days of waiting until Thanksgiving? This year New York Polyphony, the acclaimed vocal quartet, decided to contribute to the Christmas Creep by releasing their newest album, Sing Thee Nowell, in early September—and I couldn’t be more delighted.
I’ve been following New York Polyphony for several years now, and I’ve always been impressed with their work. This album however, is excellent even by their already high standards. Sing The Nowell is a wonderful blend of old and new Christmas carols. In typical fashion for New York Polyphony, their recording features standards like Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and works by contemporary composers such as Andrew Smith and Richard Bennett—whose Five Carols are excellently performed. But the real gems of this recording are Verdelot’s “Gabriel Archangelus” and several compositions and arrangements by members of the quartet.
The recording of Verdelot’s “Gabriel Archangelus” is the crowning achievement of the album. There are only maybe one or two other tracks of renaissance polyphony I’ve ever heard of this quality. The level of unity and sensitivity presented by New York Polyphony on this track is astonishing. When I first listened to the recording, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and this track is worth the cost of the entire album.
Countertenor Geoffrey Williams’ setting of “Adam Lay Ybounden,” and bass Craig Phillips’ compositions and arrangements (using the name Alexander Craig) are also worthy of mention. Not only are these pieces fresh and exciting, they also break the stereotype of performers who don’t compose, and the songs reveal another level of depth to the quartet. Additionally, Phillips displays quite a breath of ability with his diverse use of style, utilizing both fresh contemporary harmonies on “Gabriel’s Message” and “Sleep Now,” and syrupy sweet romanticism on “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
As someone who’s followed New York Polyphony for years, it’s simple matter to call Sing Thee Nowell their best album. Not only does it demonstrate their growth as a vocal quartet, but it also shows their dedication to a wide range of repertoire. Whether or not the Christmas Creep fills you with dread, any serious fan of one-on-a-part singing should make it a priority to pick up this album.