Not just another Christmas CD: Etherea Vocal Ensemble’s Ceremony of Carols on Delos Music

Holiday CDs come and go.  Some fade out while others become lasting favorites.  My prediction is that the 2011 Delos release, Ceremony of Carols, will be one of the latter.  The disc marks an excellent recording debut by the aptly-named Etherea Vocal Ensemble, a group of young professionals formed in 2009 and led by artistic director, Derek Greten-Harrison.

As its title suggests, the CD presents Britten’s holiday favorite, A Ceremony of Carols (Op. 28) for treble voices and harp.  Despite countless recordings of this work on the market, Etherea’s rendition stands out from the first crystalline declaration, “Hodie Christus natus est,” to the end.  Captivating throughout, the singers’ clarion voices were particularly crisp and bright during the animated polyphonic sections of “Wolcum Yole” and “This little Babe.”  Of special note is Derek Greten-Harrison’s fine countertenor voice which he put to good use in the haunting solo, “That youngë child”—another favorite movement from this work.

Etherea with artistic director Derek Greten-Harrison and harpist Grace Cloutier

In addition to the Britten, the disc includes English holiday carols, the glorious Basque carol, Gabriel’s Message, Gounod’s Noël, Glière’s Impromptu for Harp, and Rutter’s Dancing Day.  Etherea’s performance of Gabriel’s Message was especially ravishing, and the French offering by Gounod was a welcome treat.

Harpist Grace Cloutier proved equally capable as a soloist and accompanist and her warm and expressive playing complemented the exquisite vocals.

Throughout the entire disc, the vocal purity, harmonic balance, and angelic beauty of the group were superb.  The soloists all sang with clear, focused, voices.  Particularly memorable was the modal “There is no Rose” from Dancing Day featuring soprano Amanda Sidebottom and Derek Greten-Harrison in an impressive duet, their voices intertwining and blending perfectly.  It was only one of many, many moments that left me utterly transported.  Etherea has demonstrated that it is most certainly a group to watch.  Their Ceremony of Carols is the perfect antidote to the winter blues and is sure to remain a seasonal favorite year after year.

The CD includes detailed program notes, translations, and musician biographies.

Lauren Alfano is a New York-based soprano,