Christmas Disc Reviews
Published on December 1, 2004
10 CHRISTMAS CDs & SACDs
WOLCUM YULE: Celtic and British Songs and Carols – Anonymous 4 with Andrew Lawrence-King – Multichannel SACD Harmonia Mundi 807325 (66 mins.)*****:
With the help of virtuoso harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, Anonymous 4 celebrates Christmas with a wealth of Yuletide music from the British Isles. Juxtaposing pagan and Christian traditions, and including favorites such as “The holly and the ivy” and “I saw three ships,” the program interweaves English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ballads and carols with music by John Tavener, Benjamin Britten and a newly-commissioned work by Peter Maxwell Davies.
The Davies song, A Calendar of Kings, sets a George Mackay Brown poem concerning the journey of the three Magi from the East to the scene of Christ’s nativity; it is spare in affect, yet vividly devotional, and will be remembered long after its six minutes are up. Britten’s A New Year Carol, which concludes the recital, is so consolingly beautiful that you will be willing (just) to let the CD finish. Whether you prefer your joy in abstract or rollicking settings, there is much for you to enjoy.
Unaccompanied, and with Lawrence-King providing backing on an array of instruments including psaltery, Baroque harp or a remarkable Irish “Queen Mary” harp that sounds as if it contains its own peal of heavenly bells, the four women of Anonymous 4 have never sounded as lovely. Working at Skywalker Sound, producer Robina Young and engineer Brad Michel have created an uncannily natural space in which the overtones float magically away as if they were sounding in response to the season. A gracious introduction by Anonymous 4’s Johanna Maria Rose, and comprehensive notes on each selection, complete a very attractive package. [All I can add to this review we ran over a year ago for the standard CD is that the SACD creates a 100% more uncanny natural space for the four lovely voices, and Lawrence-King’s harps stand out with the presence of being in the listening room.]
– Laurence Vittes
A STAR IS SHINING – The Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble; Mattias Wager, pipe organ; Maja Lundbäck, soprano; Daniel Pettersson, key fiddle; Anders Astrand & Daniel Saur, percussion; other vocal soloists – Multichannel SACD Opus 3 CD 22041, ****:
The 17 tracks of this latest offering from Sweden’s Opus 3 present a variety of classical and folk music of the Christmas season. Probably the only ones that will be familiar to North American listeners are the various versions of Lo How a Rose e’er Blooming, and Silent Night.There are two carols for organ by American liturgical composer John Rutter. Some of the folk-derived songs are accompanied by fiddle and percussion as well as organ, and the version of “Rose” by Michael Preatorius commands a quartet of vocal soloists.Recorded in a church in the far north of Sweden, this 4.0 channel recording preserves the very natural acoustics of the space, as so all Opus 3 recordings.
TCHAIKOVSKY’S GREATEST HIT – The Ultimate Nutcracker – RCA Red Seal 82876-62821-2, 75:02 ****:
BMG has issued a series of compilations that show a great deal more thought than most such efforts. Their all-Rachmaninoff-Vocalise and all-Ravel’s Bolero CDs are well worth having, and this one found favor with me for using two quirky musical groups I really enjoy on it. The opening of the disc is the traditional Nutcracker Suite in a rather hoary Philadelphia orchestra recording with Eugene Ormandy. They we hear the same 8-movement suite in a special arrangement for the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Great fun. Next is Spike Jones and his City Slickers, with Susan Scott and a chorus in their take on the Nutcracker Suite. There’s narration and the expected sound effects. I was nuts on Spike Jones as a kid but this is not up to the parody levels of his Spike Jones Murder Carmen.
However, the piece de resistance for me were the closing couple of tracks. They’re by the First Piano Quartet, which was a genuine ensemble of four grand pianos which concretized widely in the 40s and 50s and made many 78s and 45s. They had a wonderful massed sound and some clever arrangements that avoided the pop routes of Ferrante and Teicher. However, BMG has never seen fit to reissue a disc of any of their recordings until these two tracks. At least we have the Dance of the Reed Flutes and Waltz of the Flowers, so a small thanks to BMG for that anyway. What a trip the FPQ would be in multichannel, eh? Oh, and the CD, case and notes are all adorned with illustrations from Patrick McDonnell’s delightful Mutts comic strip.
– John Sunier
NOELS & CAROLS from the Olde World – Sandra Simon Soprano/ Apollo’s Fire/ Jeannette Sorrell Director/ KOCH International Classics KIC CD 7582 *****:
These are English, French and Spanish Carols of the fifteenth and sixteenth century arranged by Jeanette Sorrel, performed magically by members of Apollo’s Fire, The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. In 1991 Ms. Sorrell was invited to audition for a conducting position with The Cleveland Orchestra, resulting in the founding of Apollo’s Fire with the assistance of Cleveland Orchestra. Artistic Administrator, Roger Wright. Jeannette Sorrel has been Music Director of Apollo’s Fire since its debut in 1992.
Noels & Carols from the Olde World includes 19 carols plus the Mystery Sonata No. 1, “Annunciation” by H. I.F. Biber, magnificently played by Cynthia Roberts, violin with accompaniment. Sandra Simon is the excellent soprano soloist in nine of the selections. Carols of Purcell and Charpentier are presented as are the anonymous carols I Saw Three Ships and On Christmas Night.
These performances are uniformly excellent and above all supremely musical. The attention paid to detail renders each carol a jewel-like quality. The instrumental playing is of the highest order, the vocal selections comparable . This release captures that special ambiance of the Holiday Season although it is most deserving of year-round attention.
The recording was made in the Cleveland area, primarily at St.Paul’s Episcopal Church in Feb. 1998.The auditorium space is palpable, the soundstage deep and extremely wide. Instrumental and vocal detail is provided with great realism by the recording team. Apollo’s Fire has recently signed a five-disc agreement with Koch International Classics. Released almost simultaneously with this disc is Jeannette Sorrel’s recording of the Mozart Symphonies 35,41, the Overture to Don Giovanni and Scarborough Fayre, Traditional Tunes from the British Isles and the New World. These recordings are eagerly awaited.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not mention that Apollo’s Fire has recorded a dazzling Messiah which is available from their website on order. Highly recommended!
— Ronald Legum
NOEL PIANISSIMO – Duo Campion-Vachon in piano 4 hands music – Analekta AN 2 9818, ****:
No additional pianos here – just two additional hands and some very imaginative arrangements. The 25 tracks are grouped into Christmas Echoes, Chorales, and the larger part of carols and Christmas tunes played in the style of various famous composers or in one case in the style of mechanical pianos. Some of the composers are Bach (naturally), Busoni, Liszt, Ravel, Gershwin, and Mendelssohn. My fav was probably the Ravel version of White Christmas. A very nice idea that’s just a touch different, providing good holiday background music.
CHRISTMAS SONGS BY SINATRA – Frank Sinatra, tenor Alex Stordahl conducts Orchestra, Ken Lane Singers, B. Swanson Quartet, Mitchell Boys Choir, Bobby Tucker Singers – CBS CK 92702 , 45:06****:
I don’t usually have any opportunity to opine on Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board, Mr. Francis Sinatra. I grew up with the sound of his clear, persuasive voice–he and Bing Crosby dominated popular singing in my mind until Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Mario Lanza came along–and these inscriptions 1944-1950 capture the bobby-soxers’ dream-boat in his romantic prime, selling Christmas to a nation involved in or just recovering from World War II. The compilation derives from Columbia shellacs and V-Discs, with three previously unissued radio transcriptions of Ave Maria, Winter Wonderland, and The Lord’s Prayer.
It was Sinatra’s own idol Bing Crosby who initiated in 1928 the popular singers’ medleys of Christmas carols, recording a set with Paul Whiteman and then including various collections in holiday-season radio programs. Sinatra brings to these favorites his inimitable rubato and crooner’s lilt, along with his reliable respect for the words. The earliest entry is White Christmas, from November 1944. The latest recorded song is Let It Snow! from November 1950. Alex Stordahl’s arrangements are in the big-band mold, easily comparable – as in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town – to a Benny Goodman or Count Basie rendition. Sinatra slides the rhythms with easy flair. Let It Snow! is a snugglin’ eight-to-the-bar, hot pepper. One V-Disc, a medley from a dress rehearsal of The Frank Sinatra Show from 1945, has a presentation by a stolid General Reynolds of Special Services; then Frank says hello to our armed Forces and segues into O, Little Town of Bethlehem. I miss the duets with Dorothy Kirsten, which I hope CBS will issue in time. The cover art, from the original 78s release of 1948, along with the packaging and Frank’s singing, transcends nostalgia – an eminently collectible item.
THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM – The Manhattan Transfer – with Orchestral arrangements by Johnny Mandel – Columbia CK 92710 ****:
I was going to pass on this one, finding most of Manhattan Transfer just a little too perfect and show-bizy in their pop-jazz arrangements, but seeing the title of the first track pulled me in since it’s one of my favorites – Claude Thornhill’s lovely Snowfall. And the arranging of it by Johnny Mandel is just superb. The orchestral backing adds a lot and the choice of tunes is excellent too. Everything’s in very good taste and good sound. This is a reissue of their effort from l992. [What a lot has happened since then. Too bad we can’t go back there to celebrate our Christmas!] The tunes are: Snowfall, Let It Snow!3, Santa Claus is Coming to Town/Santa Man, The Christmas Song, Silent Night, Caroling2, Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season, A Christmas Love Song, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Goodnight.
CHRISTMAS RHAPSODY – John Bayless, piano – Koch Records KOC-CD9610 ****:
Bayless has been playing and recording his tasteful pop/classical piano arrangements of lots of familiar music for decades now. I expected his Christmas outing to be a bit over the top, but it is actually most entertaining and creative. He is especially drawn to medleys and flows from tune to tune with perfect ease. For example the opening track: O Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard on High/Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. I also liked the Santa Claus Is Coming to Town/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy track. Good piano sonics aids the presentation; the recording was made in a tiny church above San Francisco Bay which is often used by recording companies, including Harmonia mundi.
PEACE ROUND – A Christmas Celebration by Yellowjackets – Heads Up HUCD 3090 ****:
Leader, tenor and soprano saxophone player Bob Mintzer did the arrangements for this album whose title comes from an old English canon to which folkie Jean Ritchie added words. Others tunes are Little Drummer Boy, Silent Night, Deck the Hall, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Winter Wonderland and In a Silent Night. The last is a re-imaging of the Gruber hymn by Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Some very nice versions here; not the sort of thing you might expect from a fusion rock/jazz band.
HOLIDAY TIME – Anton Schwartz, tenor sax (with Art Hirahara, piano; John Wiitala, bass; Tim Bulkley, drums) – AntonJazz AJ-1003, 27:32 ****:
Nice work for the holidays from the up and coming Bay Area saxist. A bit short length, but better than a full disc of so-so stuff. And I’m not privy to what the disc is selling for either. The big surprise is probably the fifth track after four predictable Christmas tunes – In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. This is the second holiday CD I’ve received with this tune on it. Schwartz gives it a long and lovely lyrical treatment but I fail to see the holiday tie-in.
– John Henry
[Be sure to register for our giveaway this month of a dozen Fantasy Jazz Classics SACDs to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION readers! See home page.]