Image © EMI Classics 2009
More Karl Jenkins:
Stella Natalis (2009)
Stabat Mater (2008)
Kiri Sings Karl (2006)
Vocalise (2003) (SK)
Vocalise (2003) (PVV)
Adiemus Live (2001)
Adiemus Concert Review - Cardiff (2001)
The Eternal Knot (2000) (feature)
(07 Feb 2010) Each year when Christmas time becomes closer, it means a really hectic time for the music business, and the competition from top spots in the various charts is more than fierce. This makes no exception with Christmas-themed albums, though sadly, these days the majority of them do consist of songs and pieces the world has heard before. This is why the latest album of the phenomenal Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, entitled Stella Natalis (EMI Classics (UK) 50999-6886482-8 CD; 50999-6886485-9 digital, 2009), makes a warmly welcomed exception to this rule, despite of that even this album contains some of those oldies and goldies.
The album consists of two halves; "Stella Natalis" contains new, more or less Christmas and winter-themed music composed by Karl Jenkins, and "Joy To The World," the more traditional half with newly arranged, already known material. "Stella Natalis" is at times quite loosely associated with Christmas though, but the composer himself has wanted it to be so, with the music conveying the message of goodwill, peace, compassion and a new beginning. Even composition-wise the palette is a bit wider than usual, with some Zulu texts, appearance of Hindu gods, and so on. The libretto for "Stella Natalis" has been written by Carol Barratt, not only a wonderful composer and Karl's wife but also a stunning lyricist, who makes Karl's compositions shine even more, just like the real Stella Natalis should shine. And what comes to the other half, "Joy To The World," one does not have to fear it being only a normal, all-too familiar re-hashed collection of clichéd Christmas songs and carols, thanks to Karl's clever, innovative arrangements.
In fact, Stella Natalis is not actually Karl's first touch to Christmas-themed music, namely, around 1995, he, singers Miriam Stockley and Mary Carewe, as well as a group of other musicians released an album entitled Merry Christmas To The World (Warner Special Marketing GmbH (Germany) 0630-12379-2 CA-851, 1995.). This was a charity-related album, but as it was only a limited release within a couple of countries in central Europe, the album is nowadays a very rare thing to find. Stella Natalis actually contains material from that super-rare album, though now with completely new performers as well as slightly renewed arrangements, and because the album made in 1995 is so difficult to find these days, Jenkins made a good decision to have a proper worldwide release for his beautiful arrangements.
Another aspect of this recycling is that long-standing fans of Karl can hear some familiar tunes from his earlier works. This is not the first time when Karl has recycled some of his own musical ideas. Smehow, the re-arrangements of Karl’s previously known pieces such as Celebro ("Tulpar" from Tlep), "Wintertide" ("Connla's Well" from Adiemus IV), "Sleep, Child Of Winter" ("Lacus Lenitatis" from Imagined Oceans) and "Sing We Joy At Christmas" ("Palace Of The Crystal Bridge" from Adiemus IV) sound so wonderful as if they were winter/Christmas songs originally! Another familiar feature is the usage of Adiemus-style, edgy tribal vocals, but here it is more like a refined colour, a touch of something new that isn't normally associated with festive music, instead of being something that has been forced to the album's formula. "The Protector" and "Dona Nobis Pacem" are the only pieces that sound a bit like being album fillers, but otherwise the recycling, be it deliberate or not, is not a disturbing thing in any way.
The orchestra on Stella Natalis is Marylebone Camerata, and it also features Tenebrae Choir (directed by Nigel Short), sopranos Kate Royal and Alice Halstead, the more ethnic singers Mary Carewe and Mae McKenna, as well as the trumpeter Alison Balsom. The orchestra plus the other instrumentalists and singers, all dedicate themselves to the performance superbly well, and it can be clearly heard that everybody are in the festive mood throughout the album! This does not happen with all Christmas albums, so Stella Natalis stands out from the flood of annually published Christmas albums more than wonderfully, bringing the listeners an album full of only heavenly music!
One can only but hope that there would be more albums like this released in the future!--Suvi Kaikkonen in Oulu, Finland