Sheet Music Review
Hot off the press from Editions Musica Ferrum, Capturing the Spirit of Christmas features 12 Carols arranged for piano, six by Barbara Arens and six by Alison Mathews. Several of Barbara’s books have been featured here before, and Alison will be known to many readers as the composer of Piano Planets, a collection of original pieces previously published by EVC Music Publications.
As with all Editions Musica Ferrum publications, the book has a high quality presentation with a traditional vibe. I’m a fan of this approach, and rather feel the score is a work of art in its own right! But what of the content?
12 Carols arranged for piano
The carols are, by arranger:
- From Heaven on High the Angels Sing
- We Three Kings
- Maria walks through Woods of Thorns
- Deck the Halls
- Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
- Rend the Heavens
- Gabriel’s Message
- Sussex Carol
- Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
- Coventry Carol
- O come, O come, Emmanuel
- I Saw Three Ships & In Dulci Jubilo
It is immediately clear from this list that the arrangers have selected carols from the more serious classical and traditional end of the spectrum – there are few tunes here that younger players will recognise. It’s also a charming touch that both arrangers have selected carols heavily from within their own cultural tradition, with German carols dominant in Barbara’s selection and Olde English ones in Alison’s.
I was really pleased to see that the book begins with a detailed and informative introduction section, “Notes on the Carols”, which brings together the words of each carol and some impressive research into the sources of each.
Regardless of the selections and provenance of these tunes, though, the “Spirit of Christmas” has most certainly been “Captured” throughout this collection, not least because of the tasteful and stylish arrangements, which brilliantly speak to the mood of the Season.
It is certainly interesting – and to the collection’s benefit – to have arrangements by two different composers presented side by side. And both Barbara and Alison have done a stellar job of taking these old tunes and presenting them with fresh voices, imbued with a contemporary musical language throughout.
Barbara’s writing, familiar to those who have explored her other collections, is here again characterised by the use of a wide dynamic range, unexpected key and time signature changes, and in some of the pieces, pulsating rhythms. A contrast is found in her arrangement of We Three Kings, which is spartan but still highly effective. Unusually for Barbara, suggested fingerings are kept to a bare minimum.
Alison, by contrast, writes with a more deliberately lyrical flow. In almost all her arrangements here, the left hand is principally employed to play broken-chord figurations, and while Barbara typically constrains movement and chord voicing within the octave, Alison prefers to spread across a tenth; these figurations flesh out the harmony very effectively, but rather benefit from larger hands, a flexible wrist and good legato pedalling. These arrangements are spacious, “Romantic”, and full of seasonal sparkle.
Overall in terms of level, I would say that all the pieces here are manageable for players of around ABRSM Grade 4-5 level.
Unlike other books I have recently reviewed from Editions Musica Ferrum there seems to be no link to an audio download for Capturing the Spirit of Christmas from the publisher’s site, but this beautifully compiled video featuring the two composers playing through their works will I hope satisfy your appetite for listening to the pieces in full:
Those who enjoy the best traditions of Christmas music, and particularly those who have a good knowledge of the carol repertoire, will be immediately thrilled by this collection of lovingly crafted solo piano arrangements.
And for players who are ready to explore fresh music which effectively represents both the past and the present of Seasonal music-making, delving into Capturing the Spirit of Christmas will be an enchanting and picturesque journey.
Had this collection been available a couple of months earlier, I am sure that several of my students would have lapped it up. As it is, those of us with more advanced playing ability can enjoy reading through the collection now, while I am sure that many others will have a great time exploring this music as soon as next year’s Christmas season comes around.
Teachers are certainly well advised to get a copy and familiarise themselves with what the score offers. This is a collection which seems bound to keep on giving the gift of Christmas in years to come!