It seems extraordinary that Libera have taken until 2011 to release their first Christmas album. It isn't just that this chart-topping choir of seven- to 16-year-old boys has been in existence in its current form since around the mid-1990s, performing the arrangements and original compositions of their musical director, Robert Prizeman. It's also that their very raison d'etre is to bestow warm, fluffy feelings upon their listeners. Read their promotional blurb and you'll be promised "unique celestial sounds for the modern age", with "shimmering, mystical chords and ecstatic harmonies". Underlining these promises are album titles such as Eternal and Peace, and their performing garb of white monastic cowls. Certainly, if ever a choir were made for Christmas it's Libera, and The Christmas Album's 16-track programme is a reassuringly familiar mix of traditional carols such as Joy to the World and Once in Royal David's City, and more recent favourites including White Christmas and Carol of the Bells. Less familiar is how they've been reinterpreted, Libera-style, by Prizeman.
Given that the Libera product is essentially tranquil mood albums, perhaps it's wrong to feel surprised and disappointed to discover this disc to be a one-flavour offering. Somehow, though, it's impossible not to be. Christmas music is wonderful for its variety, from the bright punch of Joy to the World and the awe-filled reverence of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, to the heart-warming schmaltz of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. However, under Prizeman's pen, a programme that on paper looks stylistically wide-ranging has become a homogenous mass of smooth, sweet, limp sentimentality, heavy on the keyboards and unable to shake off an all-pervasive air of being over-produced. The boys themselves have attractive voices and effortless top registers, but their vocal delivery has been developed to complement Prizeman's compositional style and sounds manufactured. It's as though they've been told, "Sing as you imagine a chorister should sound, but with a hint of boyband, too." It's soft, occasionally breathy, sweet and smooth, with the odd portamento thrown in for good measure. It lacks the clear, true, crisp boyish exuberence produced by the trebles of top UK cathedral choirs such as Westminster Abbey, King's College, Cambridge or Wells Cathedral choirs, whose own Christmas discs will provide much longer-lasting listening pleasure.
It's such a shame. Libera is a non-profit choir. Its boys are drawn from a wide range of south London schools, encompassing a good spread of social backgrounds. They're evidentally talented, and they work phenomenally hard. It would have been far more satisfying to have given their disc a glowing review. Humbug.