When listening to Christmas carols, it is very easy to tell if the artist is genuine and “feeling it”. There is little room for soulless performances and shortcuts when the audience already know and love the material. Other music genres tend to be more forgiving. This is one of the ingredients that makes Rick Sparks’ new album “Christmas Night” so special. It is inspired. You can tell that the instrumental carols are selected and performed with love. “Christmas Night” also contains two originals that bind the album together, making it into a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Rick Sparks began music lessons at age seven and got an early taste of public performance when he began playing piano in church as a teenager. A visit to an antique store in 2007 set a new musical direction for him when he heard a solo piano album playing in the background. This experience made him want to record New Age music. Sparks has so far released six albums: “Endless” (2014), “Matilda’s Flowers” (2016), “Nightfall London” (2017), “Half Moon Bay” (2018), “Hushabye” (2019) and “Christmas Night” (2020). In addition, Rick released the compilation album, “Dreams of Peace”, in 2019, a collection of his best songs. Rick Sparks is also the man behind the very popular Live365.com channel The Cove.
Regarding “Christmas Night”, Sparks says: “The album was inspired, in part, by a wonderful holiday tradition: the annual BBC broadcast of the King’s College Christmas Eve service in Cambridge, England. Each year, millions around the world listen as the service begins with a choir boy’s single voice singing “Once in Royal David’s City.” That 19th-century carol perfectly sets the tone for the entire service, strikingly beautiful in its simplicity and reverence.”
“Christmas Night” starts with the title track, which is an original. Gentle as falling snow, the theme instantly conjures the Christmas spirit in us. The bell-like synth and strings are soon joined by heavenly singers who transforms this snowy night into something divine. It is beautiful beyond words, totally unpretentious and honest. “Christmas Night” is, in short, a wonderful composition. Bravo!
“Christ is Born”, which we know from The Carpenters’ 1978 album “Christmas Portrait”, starts with church bells and choir. I love the deep synth pads and the gentle lead instrument. The piece is filled with classical inspiration, and of course the memory of Perry Como’s vocal – who discovered and made this song famous in the 1960s (it was originally written in Latin by Domenico Bartolucci). Strangely enough, the piece feels complete – even without Como.
The First Noel
“The First Noel” is one of the most beautiful Christmas carols ever written. Sparks’ version shows his ability to use strings to perfection, making the choir sounds divine. I like the sharp sounding bells and the tender sounding flute, making it easy to envision how “The wise men learnt its cause of stay, And found the place where Jesus lay.” Wonderful, just wonderful.
“The First Noel” fades into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, which is always a terrific “bridge”. The angel choir is arranged with love and skill. The acapella ending is superb.
In the Bleak Midwinter
One of the finest pieces on the album is “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Gustav Holst’s classical melody goes straight to the heart, many thanks to Sparks’ arrangement with piano, strings and angelic voices. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I like how the piece develops, from the lonely piano in the intro to the full arrangement in the end, creating a warm and loving Christmas atmosphere.
Sparks’ take on “What Child Is This”, including a new bridge of descending chords with strings and voices, is elegant, playful, and pristine. The analog synth keys are great, backed by Sparks string magic. The same can be said about “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”, a traditional Polish carol – which also has one of Sparks’ creative and well-made bridges.
Once in Royal David’s City
As mentioned above, “Christmas Night” is inspired by King’s College Christmas Eve service. I’m extremely impressed by the vocal arrangement; It is not easy making it sound as good as this. Usually, vocal synths are used for backing – but here they carry the whole song, like a real choir. “Silent Night” proves this once more; you can almost “hear” the lyrics, it is that good! The flute section too is magnificent.
The album-closing “Nativity”, the second original piece, both defines and rounds off “Christmas Night” in a glorious way. It is, according to Sparks, inspired by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Given the selection of eternal Christmas music on the album, one should think that “Nativity” would sound more like an original – a bit out of place and less like a classic – but it is really on par with many of the carols here. That is a major accomplishment.
In conclusion: Rick Sparks has delivered a superb Holiday album! “Christmas Night” is close to a perfect release, many thanks to the way the two original carols bind the album together. I’m also amazed by how a synth album can communicate the atmosphere of the King’s College Christmas Eve service, which usually requires hundreds of singers and musicians, plus the enormity of the King’s College Cambridge chapel. Just like the famous service, “Christmas Night” offers a rich and rewarding listening experience. It is a gift to the world.
For more information and music samples, visit ricksparksmusic.net