Did I mention that I’m really, really into Bach at the moment? The fact that this is the second bit of Bach you are getting in this Advent Calendar might be a clue (and it’s not the last, either – I’m not going to let you get to Christmas without at least a little peek at the Christmas Oratorio).
I loved this carol well before I knew it was Bach’s arrangement because of the utterly gorgeous – and in places totally counterintuitive – alto line. As an alto, I am always delighted when a composer gives me something more interesting than a row of Fs (which is one reason I am all over both polyphony and Baroque music). Actually, the weirdness of the opening bar should have alerted me to its composer, now I think about it. No other 17th century composer would do that to their alto section (20th century composers have no mercy on anyone, of course, but the results are rarely so beautiful). This is such a beautiful thing to sing, and I love the way the harmonies cross over.
I listened to a few versions of this, but eventually had to choose this performance by The King’s Singers. One of the reasons Bach can be difficult to sing (aside from his counterintuitive key changes) is that he didn’t really write for the human voice as an instrument – he wrote music that happened to use voices as a medium. (This is not hyperbole on my part – unlike composers such as Handel or Purcell, Bach didn’t really care what voices could or couldn’t do, he cared about what the music was supposed to do, and his singers just had to put up with that. Later in life, he wrote several pieces for no instrument at all – just pure music.)
So it seems fitting to reflect the purity of Bach’s musical vision with The King’s Singers, who sing everything with a clear tone that is as close to pure music as anything I’ve heard.
(And really, make sure you listen to that alto line. It’s being sung by the second chap from the left and he is really enjoying it, as well he should. You should, too.)