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16 Christmas Discs

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Published on December 6, 2010

16 Christmas Discs

A Late Romantic Christmas Eve – Le Quatuor Romantique – Ars multichannel SACD 38 086, 77:44 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:

This album took me by surprise; at first glance, the idea of a violin, cello, harmonium, and piano playing seasonal pieces by mainly unknown composers did not seem appealing, and the presence of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker only made my angst more profound—Waltz of the Flowers with harmonium? Come on!

But it just goes to show that you can’t judge an SACD by its cover, for this is a beautifully presented group of performances that capture to a formidable degree the feeling and spirit that one might have enjoyed as a part of the rising European middle class in Germany and other areas of the continent during the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.

Despite the proclamation of the notes that this music is something that may have been found played in the homes of many people, I have difficulty imagining that the Nutcracker

selections were among them, especially in this orchestration—the music is too difficult. But it does make a nice opening here is one approaches it with the idea of a delightful Christmas warm-up and not a gargantuan balletic experience. I have to say that the instrumentation works very well in all of these pieces, my one concern of a severe allergy to the harmonium immediately assuaged after the first few tracks. There are some real gems here; Waldteufel’s Skater’s Waltz is given a crackerjack reading, while Schoenberg’s Christmas Night Music will surprise many who think they know everything about this composer—yes, you can play this for your children without fear. The selections are nothing but attractive across the board, and while the composers are mostly unknown, they have produced pieces of high quality and eminently successful yuletide attractions that set one’s mind back to—at least what seems to us now—far more uncomplicated times. The attractive and sweet voice of Elena Fink only adds to the enjoyment.

Ars has done a beautiful job of spreading the music around the speakers in this lush Super Audio production. If I had to pick only one new Christmas album this year—at least so far—this would be it.  

TrackList:

1-5. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71 
6. Gustav Lewin (1869-1938): Nun Ist sie endlich kommen (“Weihnachtslied”) 
7. Sigismund Schneider (1897-1957): Weihnachtsmarsch 
8. Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951): Weihnachtsmusik, Choralbearbeitung 
9. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) / Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933): Arie,"Mein gläubiges Herze” 
10. Adolf Schreiner (1847-1921): Paraphrase über, Stille Nacht 
11. Wilhelm Berger (1861-1911): Weihnachtslied ,Vom Himmel in die tiefsten Klüfte
12. Arnold Mendelssohn (1855-1933): Weihnachtslied ,Markt und Straßen steh’n verlassen 
13. Wilhelm Lindemann (1882-1941): Eine Muh, eine Mäh…, Charakterstuck 
14. Jonny Heykens (1884-1945): Ave Maria 
15. Jean Dasty (19??): Ave Maria 
16. Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930): Weihnachtslied ,Was soll das bedeuten’ 
17. Richard Eilenberg (1848-1921): Norwegische Renntierpost’, Charakterstück 
18. Emile Waldteufel (1837-1915): Les Patineurs, Konzertwalzer 
19. Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1924): Ouverture zur Oper, Hänsel und Gretel

– Steven Ritter

The Cherry Tree – Songs, Carols and Ballads for Christmas – Anonymous 4 – Vocals by Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek – Harmonia Mundi HMU 807453 – Multichannel SACD, 59 min. ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

At some point a good while back I remember reading that Anonymous 4 – Harmonia mundi’s vocal supergroup – was hanging it up – yes, retiring from performance. How could that be – each of their succeeding albums had accolade upon accolade heaped upon it, concerts sold out everywhere – how could such an artistic, critical and commercially successful group of women simply retire?? As it turns out, they never did quite retire, returning every couple of years with a new offering that of course once again gets layered with superlatives and praise – I guess retirement works out pretty well for some folks!

Their latest offering, The Cherry Tree, takes its name from the medieval “Cherry Tree Carol,” and brings us a remarkably good mixture of sacred and secular motets, songs and carols from England, Ireland and America that span a period from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. I’ve heard a good many offerings of medieval based Christmas celebrations that were little short of total snoozes – this one is anything but, and music making this grand truly deserves a celebration! It’s sometimes hard to believe listening to this incredibly well recorded album that only four voices are making the remarkable sounds heard here. While my original intent was to basically scan through this disc, once it started playing, I simply found myself at the edge of my chair in rapt attention and anticipation of each upcoming song – the phrase “ear candy” is definitely appropriate for this superb recording! The singing throughout covers a wide range of styles, from polyphony to folk hymns, and surprisingly (to me, at least) seems not at all out of place alongside much more traditional and even popular Christmas music. And those marvelously fluid voices! The sound of Anonymous 4 has often described as angelic – I’ll have to risk overuse of the adjective here, but what better choice of material for angels to be singing!

Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the recording is as magnificent as this multichannel SACD from Harmonia mundi – the sound here is truly resplendent, and offers a palpable and believable aural impression of the four voices in the acoustic of the two recording venues, Skywalker Sound and the Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College in Indiana. The overall clarity of the sound here is just breathtaking, and the absolute lucidity of these four beautiful voices deserves nothing less. Very highly recommended, for holiday listening, and beyond!

– Tom Gibbs

Weihnachtliche Harfenmusik: A Pastoral Christmas with Harp – New York Harp Ensemble/ The New York Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra/ Aristid von Wurtzler, conductor – Orfeo C 122 841 A, 41:59 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***:

The New York Harp Ensemble, founded in 1970 by Aristid Von Wurtzler, consists of 4 harpists who have given thousands of concerts in the United States and in 53 countries all over the world in its 40 years of existence. It has also not been shy of the recording studio, with at least six recordings currently available. It was one of the first groups of its kind to attempt promotion of the versatility of a uniquely stereotyped instrument.

This album, recorded in 1984, adds the beauties of the New York Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, another ensemble with a sterling history, and one that has been involved in the production of Baroque music for a long time now, though the advent of period players serve to date them quite significantly. Nonetheless, for those who appreciate these early efforts by modern instrument bands in the area of Bach, Handel, et al, a recording that features them can be quite rewarding.

Only a portion of the music here is distinctly “Christmas” flavored, mostly music that serves a pastoral sensibility that fits in well with the season. It is not unlike Christopher Hogwood’s early efforts with the Academy of Ancient Music on a Oiseau-Lyre album called Christmas Concertos also from the eighties that features Baroque composers played with fire and some scratchy-yet-still-fun tone.

But the three stars awarded here are generous, and here is why; this album lists for $24.75 on the Qualiton website, a high amount for a single disc from 1984 with only 42 minutes. I did notice that Archivmusic.com has it for $19.99, but that’s still a large amount all things considered. I enjoyed this album very much, and if you can put up with the pricing I am sure you will too, but if your budgetary needs push you towards more selective Christmas music shopping, don’t even think about this one. The sound is close but very ingratiating.

TrackList:

GIUSEPPE VALENTINI: Sinfonia Per il Santissimo Natale
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Praludium No. 8 in E flat major BWV 853; Largo from Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings No. 5 in F major BWV 1056
PIETRO NARDINI: Adagio
GEORG FRIEDRICH HANDEL: Pastorale (Hirtenmusik) from the Messiah
GIUSEPPE TORELLI: Largo and Vivace from Concerto grosso in G major, Op. 86/6
GIUSEPPE TARTINI: Sinfonia pastorale: Adagio cantabile – Allegro
ALESSANDRO MARCELLO: Largo

– Steven Ritter

Christmas Spirit – Alan Danson, narrator/ Richard Groller, Steven Mathiesen, Kevin Spear, Michael Vought, percussion/ Mainstreet Brass – MSR 1325, 68:09 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

I have always felt a little sorry for brass quintets trying to make Christmas albums; even if the only one ever recorded happened to be A Festival of Carols in Brass by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble from the 1960s (still available from Sony), surely the greatest such album ever recorded, the competition would be fierce. That album was very straight-up and classy as well as classic, with the arrangements second-to-none and as tasteful as you can imagine. Most since then have been a mixture of devotional and humorous—after all, these are brass players we are talking about, so a certain amount of ham is expected at this particular table. And the Mainstreet Brass, a Pennsylvania-based ensemble, is no doubt familiar with the efforts of the Fabulous Philadelphians.

But the key to any disc of this type is the quality of the arrangements, and I am pleased to report that everything here—aside from perhaps the over-the-top A Little Christmas Melody, which I am sure would be more fun in concert—is very pleasing indeed, taking advantage of all the instruments’ natural propensities without venturing into too-difficult virtuosity or special effects, a la the Canadian Brass. The MSB plays with assuredness and fine tonal qualities, enthusiastic reckonings of many of these favorites without feeling the need to super-spice any of them. Particularly imaginative and most welcome is A Christmas Carol – A Dickens of a Tale, a shortened version of the famous story with some remarkably cogent and affective music narrated by composer Alan Danson, who does an excellent job with Dickens’s storyline and oh-so-British sentiments. This was great fun.

There is nary a track here that is not entertaining and spirit-lifting, and Richard Price at Candlewood Digital has done a great job of capturing the players at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa. I might add the percussionists included in the arrangements are supportive and well-placed, not at all intrusive. This is a disc well worth acquiring, giving us more ho-ho-ho and little ho-ho-hum.  Fear not, I bring you tidings of great brass and joy.
 
TrackList:

Once in Royal David’s City (Henry John Gauntlett, arr. Richard Price)
Joy to the World (attrib. G.F. Handel, arr. Alan Danson)
In the Bleak Midwinter (G. Holst, arr. A. Danson)
Ding Dong! Merrily on High (16th century French carol, arr. A. Danson)
Linus and Lucy / Christmas Time Is Here (Vince Guaraldi, arr. Kevin Long & Zachary Smith)
A Little Christmas Medley (arr. for MSB by Jonathan Smith)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel / Rejoice and Be Merry (Gallery Carol) /
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Gloucestershire Wassail (English traditional, arr. Lawrence Eden)
Wexford Carol (12th century Irish carol, arr. R. Price)
A Christmas Carol – A Dickens of a Tale (A. Danson / text: Owen Surridge)
Deck the Halls (Welsh traditional carol, arr. A. Danson)
Frosty the Snowman (Steve Nelson, arr. Lewis J. Buckley)
We Three Kings of Orient Are (John H. Hopkins, arr. A. Danson)
Go Tell It on the Mountain (American traditional, arr. L.J. Buckley)
Joseph lieber, Joseph mein (Johann Walter, arr. Shari Gleason-Mayrhofer)
Rudolph and Santa (arr. for MSB by J. Smith)
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks) /
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (J. Fred Coots)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Martin & Blane, arr. Tim Jameson)
We Wish You a Merry Christmas (16th century English carol, arr. Thomas G. Parriott)

– Steven Ritter


“In Dulci Jubilo: Romantic Choral Music for Christmas” – Norddeutscher Figuralchor / Jörg Straube [TrackList below] – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MDG 947 1651-6 (2+2+2), 74:57 *****:

Only a Teflon-coated heart would not be melted by the lovely strains of this mostly traditional Christmas music done up in nineteenth-century choral garb. It’s the perfect thing to relax to on one of those long Yuletide evenings. Once the tree is up, the packages are wrapped, and the house has settled down, you could relax and reward yourself with a selection from this CD. Or perhaps the whole program. Such is its enticements that the ear doesn’t become jaded or sated.

Some of the melodies will be instantly recognizable, of course: “Wie soll ich dich empfangen,” “In dulci jubilo,” “Vom Himmel hoch,” “Stille Nacht,” “Herbei, o irh Gläub’gen” (“Adeste fidelis”). Others will be new—at least one radically new: Alban Berg’s atonal (or only vaguely tonal) setting of the anonymous text “Es ist ein Reis entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”). And even among the treatments of familiar melodies, the approach varies from the fairly straightforward arrangements of Friedrich Silcher to the more harmonically adventurous ones by Max Reger, Heinrich Weinreis, and August von Othegraven. Few will challenge the ear as the Berg setting does, but Heinrich Kaminski’s treatment of two folksongs, “Maria durch ein Dornenwald ging” and “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein,” throws us some harmonic and rhythmic curves that help liven things up. Mostly, though, this program is a lovely plunge into ripe Romantic-era vocal harmony.

The Norddeutscher Figuralchor, founded by conductor Jörg Straube in 1981, has widely toured, concertized, and recorded, winning a number of awards along the way. The ensemble produces a purity of tone that falls easily on the ear, and MDG’s recording provides a wonderful sense of spaciousness and depth in surround-sound mode. I wish I could sample it in the 2+2+2 configuration touted by MDG. This disc would make a great gift for the audiophile on your shopping list; in fact, it would be a very nice gift to give to yourself.

TrackList:

Friedrich Silcher: “Wie soll ich dich empfangen”
Heinrich Weinreis: “Es kommt ein Schiff geladen”
Arnold Mendelssohn: “O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf”
Felix Mendelssohn: “Im Advent, ‘Lasset uns frohlocken’”
Friedrich Silcher: “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”
Max Reger: “Adventlied, ‘Macht hoch die Tür’”
Heinrich Kaminski: “Maria durch ein Dornenwald ging”
Max Reger: “In dulci jubilo”
Felix Mendelssohn: “Weihnachten, ‘Frohlocket ihr Völker’”
Felix Mendelssohn: “Vom Himmel hoch”
Felix Woyrsch: “Auf dem Berge da geht der Wind”
Karl Riedel: “Kommet, ihr Hirten”
Max Reger: “Schlaf’ mein Kindelein”
Friedrich Silcher: “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen”
Anonymous: “Als ich bei meinen Schafen wacht”
Franz Wüllner: “Kindelein zart, von guter Art”
Max Reger: “O Jesulein süß”
Alban Berg: “Es ist ein Reis entsprungen”
Heinrich Kaminski: “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”
Max Reger: “Weihnachtslied, ‘Kommt und lasst uns’”
August von Othegraven: Vom Himmel hoch, ihr Engel, kommt!”
Friedrich Silcher: “Herbei, o ihr Gläub’gen”
Gustav Schreck arr. Eusebius Mandyszewski: “Stille Nacht”
Felix Mendelssohn: “Am Neujahrstage, ‘Herr Gott, du bist unsre Zuflucht’”
Felix Mendelssohn: “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”
Carl Herner: “O du fröhliche”
Hermann Riedel: “O du fröhliche”
–Lee Passarella

Merry Christmas: Traditional and New Christmas Music – Henschel Quartet/ Soloists of the Tolzer Knabenchor/ Marga Scheurich-Henschel, harpsichord/ Frank Reinecke, bass [TrackList below] – Neos 90902, 66:19 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

This is an interesting Christmas album from the noted Henschel Quartet and their friends. What they have done is mix and match the old and new to create broad panoply of seasonal music that spans hundreds of years. This is not a new concept, but it does work very well here, especially when performed with such grace and acumen by all forces involved.

To be sure there are some things I think I could have done without; while we don’t have Bach’s Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier from the Christmas Oratorio in excised fashion too often, we don’t really need the Air on a G String too badly at this point, especially as the Suite No. 3 for orchestra has little to do with the Nativity season. Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down is a real pleasure and not recorded often, but Pachelbel’s Canon can hardly be said to lack attention these days, and do we want a string quartet version? Corelli’s ubiquitous Christmas Concerto also is not wanting for excellent recordings, and I am not sure that a string quartet version best suits my needs either, as it is the longest set of tracks on this disc even though it does fulfill the seasonal requirement and is played very well.

But the plusses far outweigh the (only slight) minuses, and hearing Stille Nacht in the original version is quite a thrill – sparse, bare-bones, and phenomenally lovely. But the real gems on this disc are not the oldies but the newer goodies; the four brand-new Christmas-themed works are quite the stunners, and all by composer you probably don’t know, and who several in fact have other jobs apart from music. Well, so what—so did Ives and he has done all right over the years! Briefly, of these Carolingua is probably the most esoteric, though its beauties are considerable and require careful listening. The Christ-child Carol demands no such rabid attention—it grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go. The Incarnation is a beautifully conceived idea using texts from the New Testament as well as poetry by Christina Rossetti (author of In the Bleak Midwinter), and is a lyrical wonder. And Mary said is a playful and lithe presentation of the opening lines of the Magnificat, wonderfully integrated with the scurrying string parts that make the quartet an equal partner to the words.

Two Euros from the same of each of these discs will go to the organization SOS Children’s Villages, a relief society that places kids in stable families and follows up by integrating them into village communities as well. The Henschel Quartet has taken a deep and sustained interest in this group, which makes the purchase of this CD doubly rewarding. A well-conceived album that rewards on several fronts.

TrackList:

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier 
from "Weihnachtsoratorium" · Instrumentation by Franz Beyer

Peter Warlock (1894–1930)
Bethlehem Down (1927) 
Instrumentation by Franz Beyer

Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706)
Canon (orig. for three violins and basso continuo)
Arrangement for two violins, viola and basso continuo by Monika Henschel

O du fröhliche
Instrumentation by Franz Beyer

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Air from Suite No. 3 for orchestra in D major, BWV 1068
Kyrie. Gott Vater in Ewigkeit (Chorale)
Instrumentation by Franz Beyer

Stille Nacht (Original version)
Arrangement by Franz Beyer

Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713)
Concerto grosso in G minor 13:11
op. 6 No. 8 "Christmas Concerto" (~1690)

Earl J. Reisdorff (*1958)
The Christ-child Carol (2007/2009)
for soprano voice parts and string quartet

Roland Fudge (*1947)
The Incarnation (2009)
for four sopranos and string quartet

Andy Evans (*1961)
And Mary said (2009)
for string quartet and four treble voices

Derek Smith (*1930)
Carolingua (2009)
for string quartet and four soprano voices

– Steven Ritter

Puer natus est, Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas = TALLIS: Missa Puer natus est; Videte miraculum; TAVERNER: Audivi vocem de caelo; BYRD: Gradualia I, 1605; WHITE: Magnificat; SHEPPARD: Verbum caro; PLAINCHANT: Puer natus est – stile antico – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807517, 78:09 *****:

The uniting strand on this new disc from the up and coming choral music ensemble Stile Antico is the remarkable Missa Puer natus est (a boy is born) by Thomas Tallis. The Gregorian plainchant melody Puer natus est nobis forms the basis for this incomplete work, it’s seven-part scoring something to wonder at in any age.

The Christmas holidays were not originally imbued with the splendor and overwhelmingly sophisticated sense of high festival that they began to achieve in the early Renaissance; indeed it was Easter and it alone that occupied pride of place, and still does in the Christian cycle. But Christmas, at least in the western church, no doubt because of its popular themes and very earthy story of agrarian-like personages latched onto a populist theme that eventually found its way into the compositional precedents of the high church as well. Tallis himself gave this mass a large scope full of superb craft and intricate writing, allowing a splendor and grandiosity that indicates the importance of this festival in the late sixteenth century. The numerology involved and almost Webern-esque attention to every aspect of detail serve to give the work a depth and emotional force that exceeds most others even at a time when the latest techniques were intent on serving up just such a splendiferous aural and religious experience.

Stile Antico supplies the Propers to this mass with four works by William Byrd. The noted recusant had achieved a place in society that seemed to insulate himself and his family from any governmental inquiries into his activities. These are the texts proper to the season from the Gradualia of 1605, from the votive services to the Blessed Virgin during Advent. Byrd does not take the time that Tallis consumes, and is always (even in general) more concise in his musical language. Yet few composers are as adept at getting to the point of the text so quickly and elevating the listener to the required level of emotional pleasure.

The remainder of the program features Taverner, White, and Sheppard, each particular to the season, especially Sheppard’s brilliant Verbum caro, a piece of unusual and thrilling harmonic changes and powerful eight-part choral ending. Stile Antico is rapidly moving into one of the premiere spots of the recent choral charts, and every release thus far has been highly significant. This Christmas offering stands out among similar releases in a very competitive field, and Harmonia mundi has captured them in wondrous surround sound fashion at All Hollows Church in London.  A fabulous disc just in time for the holidays!

– Steven Ritter       

Shout for Joy, Spiritual Christmas – Barbara Hendricks, soprano/ Ulrika Tenstam, mezzo-soprano/ Harald Pettersson, hurdy-gurdy/ Agneta Hellstrom, pipes/ Bjorn Gafvert, organ/ Mats Bergstrom, guitar/ Georg Riedel, bass/ Drottningholms Barockensemble/ Drottningholm Quartet/ Nils-Erik Sparf, violin – Arte Verum 009, 78:05 [Distr. by Allegro] ***:

As you can see from the heading, this release makes use of a variety of instruments, scoring, and vocal combinations. It is presented with texts and finely-honed notes that provide Hendrick’s rationale in her selections. Particularly enjoyable is the change of pace between each track, never knowing what the accompaniments will be or how the individual songs will be given. The arrangements are all quite tasteful and reverently done, the soprano’s innate musicality never in question.

But I wanted to like this more than I did, Hendricks fan that I am. Yet her voice is suffering from some undeniable decline. There are many instances of difficulty holding pitch, a just-in-control vibrato that displays a borderline wobble, and a tendency to slide into pitch. She has also lost a of lot dexterity in her voice, once one of the premiere instruments on stage, as is evident by the Handel selections, which lack smoothness in transition from note to note. As such, I am afraid that even the best of intentions and musical charisma can’t make up for a basically flawed instrument.

Nevertheless, the album is not without pleasure. Her renditions of seven spirituals (like the wonderful Beautiful Star with guitar accompaniment) are quite moving, while the Maria Wiegenlied of Max Reger is sumptuously done. Schubert’s Ave Maria (with harp and strings) is given a bright reading in this up-tempo, and non-sentimental version and The First Noel

soars nicely. Provisionally recommended, then, though I am sure her legion of fans will have to have this. The recording itself is close but breathable, amply capturing everything that needs to be captured. The generous timing of this disc is quite suitable to the season. Lots of music here, the Christmas album Hendricks fans have been waiting for.

TrackList:
Mary Had a Baby (Negro spiritual) [a cappella]
He Shall Feed His Flock, Come Unto Him (Georg Friedrich Handel) [mezzo & orchestra]
Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter Of Zion (Georg Friedrich Handel) [orchestra]
Quittez, pasteurs (Traditional) [hurdy-gurdy & pipes]
What Child Is This (Traditional) [hurdy-gurdy]
Sussex Carol – On Christmas Night (Traditional) [hurdy-gurdy & pipes]
Coventry Carol (Traditional) [hurdy-gurdy]
Ding Dong Merrily on High (Traditional) [organ]
Ave Maria (Charles Gounod) [organ]
Mariä Wiegenlied (Max Reger / Ekdahl) [chamber ensemble]
Adeste Fidelis (John Francis Wade) [organ]
Beautiful Star (Negro spiritual) [guitar]
Rise up, Shepherd, and Follow (Negro spiritual) [guitar & double bass]
Shout for Joy (Negro spiritual) [guitar & double bass]
Oh Jerusalem (Negro spiritual) [guitar & double bass]
Ain’t That a-Rockin’ (Negro spiritual) [guitar & double bass]
Go Tell It on the Mountain (Negro spiritual) [double bass]
Panis Angelicus (César Franck) [organ]
Minuit Chrétiens (Adolphe Charles Adam) [organ]
Ave Maria (Franz Schubert / Ekdahl) [chamber ensemble]
The First Noel (Traditional) [organ]
Stille Nacht (Franz Xaver Gruber / Ekdahl) [chamber ensemble]
Joy to the World (Georg Friedrich Handel / Ekdahl) [orchestra]

– Steven Ritter

The Chants of Christmas – Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola/ Richard J. Pugsley, conductor – Gloriæ Dei Cantores 123, 72:03 [Distr. by Paraclete Press, www.paracletepress.com] *****:

This is what I would call a glorious retread—I am not sure how many times this 1994 recording has been re-released ( I know it was in 2005) but it is certainly worth it. We are given Gregorian chants corresponding to the Propers of the four masses that comprise the Nativity celebration: roughly, the Vigil Mass (evening before, anticipatory in nature), Night Mass (done after the Night Office, reflective), early morning mass (at dawn, probably the most joyous of the four) and the Mass during the day (the most profoundly theological in meaning in terms of the Christmas proclamation). Rounding out the program are eight antiphons in honor of the Virgin Mary, not particularly wedded to the Nativity season, but certainly appropriate, and in practice found to be quote commonly performed during this time.

Readers familiar with my reviews of this ensemble know that I am a big fan, and I find the comprehensive approach, thoughtful dynamic shadings, and generally robust and fully piety-driven performances to be models of their kind. The Schola has done a number of chant recordings, all worth seeking out, and their approach to this music is anything but doctrinaire or dogmatic, ever seeking to breathe new life and a modern freshness into this ancient music that refuses to not speak to contemporary audiences. The pared-down Gregorian melodies are just the thing to allow one to reflect on the original Christmas meaning sans ornaments, decorations, and candy canes, and you might find that this release inspires you to capture anew the spiritual and cultural essence of the season. Even in 1994 the sound is terrific.

– Steven Ritter 

Feliz Navidad = Mediterranean Christmas Music from the Renaissance – Cecile Kempenaers, soprano/ Jose Pizarro, tenor/ Capella de la Torre/ Katharina Bauml, director – Coviello Classics 20811, 65:53 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

I have not given any track listings for this album since most of the selections are anonymous. What we have here is an album dedicated to the “populist’ side of Christmas music on the Mediterranean, mostly Spanish Christmas songs from the Renaissance, peasant songs (known as “villancicos”, polyphonic melodies found in the late 15th century) whose origins are anything but from the peasantry, found instead as composed by artists higher than that class, and writing in a “folk” style. These works have come down to us in various collections, but it is almost impossible to be more specific about actual sources aside from a few known composer-entities like Francisco Guerrero or Matheo Flecha.

The lively, dance-like rhythms and syllabic refrains found in several of these works, along with an irrepressible sense of urgent piety make for well-nigh irresistible listening for those tired of the usual by-the-books Nativity season fare. It is colorful, infectious, and joyfully redolent of the true meaning of the season, nakedly stripped of all pretence and penchants for shopping pleasure and visits to Santa Claus. The Capella de la Torre plays with just the right amount of controlled abandon in a fine and balanced mix of instrumentals and vocal pieces, wizards all, and should be thanked for this ever-so-timely Christmas gift!  A welcome change of pace from the usual Christmas humdrum.

– Steven Ritter

A Cathedral Christmas – Choirs of Corpus Christi Cathedral/ Cathedral Handbell Choir/ Cathedral Festival Orchestra/ Lee Gwozdz, director/ Guadalupe Rivera, Jr., asst. director – MSR Classics 1347, 62:05 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:

I wanted to rate this album higher than I did because I actually enjoyed much of it quite a lot. It is noisy, rather militant and bombastic, so this will not fill your needs for a quiet or reflective Christmas album even though there are a couple of things like this on the album. And I can state that the Corpus Christi folks are very fine indeed, the choirs very solid (with only a little lack of definition in some of the pieces) and the instrumentalists excellent. The reverb in this church (Corpus Christi Cathedral) is about 4-5 seconds, so it was probably not an easy place to record in, but the engineers did a fine job.

Some of the arrangements are not very well done—I especially found “Mary, did you know?” and “Mary, Go Tell It!” to be rather insipid—well, after all, once you have heard Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening play the former, and the Cambridge Singers the latter there is little else to be said—and there are a few others that I felt were overdone or out of place, but to each his own, and the cultural makeup of Corpus Christi probably responds well to what has been chosen. The last three tracks make for a bombastic and thrilling conclusion to this recording, and one does feel an infectious enthusiasm even in the midst of August 2009 when this was set down on disc. I would be quite happy if I heard this in any church during the festal time of year, and this album makes a nice souvenir of what happens in that area of Texas. But as a recording it goes up against a lot of others, and as such cannot be rated at the top of the Christmas heap—but there is much to enjoy here. Who knew such mighty sounds emanate from Corpus Christi?

TrackList:

Gloria  (Randol Alan Bass)
The First Nowell (arr. Mack Wilberg)
Lost in the Night (arr. Kyle S. Haugen)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (David Danner)
Ave Maria (Javier Busto)
Mary, Did You Know? (B.Greene; M.Lowry)
Magnificat Collegium Regale (H.Howells)
Away in a Manger (Kirkpatrick, arr. Wilberg)
Carol to the King (French, arr. Wilberg)
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing / Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella (arr. Robert Shaw / Robert Russell Bennett)
Carol of the Children (John Rutter)
Mary, Go Tell It! (arr. Mark Hayes)
Joy to the World (Handel, arr. Wilberg)
Deck the Halls (arr. R.A.Bass)
We Wish You a Merry Christmas (arr. Bass)

– Steven Ritter

Annie Lennox – Christmas Cornucopia – Decca Records B0014992-02, 46:00 ****:

(Annie Lennox – vocals, piano, keyboards, percussion, flute, harmonium, pipe organ, marimba, vibraphone, Wurlitzer, ullation, guitar keyboard, panpipes, sanyur, whistle, dulcimer; Mike Stevens – acoustic guitar, bass, church organ, keys, glockenspiel, percussion, programming, music box, oud, drone, string and orchestral arrangement; Barry van Zyl – percussion; featuring The African Children’s Choir)

For many people, the music of Christmas is a connective link to singing in a youth choir. To Scottish-born Annie Lennox, the meaning of this seasonal music also extends to universal themes, including family, global cultural exchange and advocacy for Third World causes. Lennox burst onto the music scene in the early eighties as co-founder of the Eurythmics. Her explosive vocal style and idiosyncratic persona captivated the public. Notching a string of hits, she embarked on an equally successful solo career. Eight Brit awards, a Golden Globe and Oscar (Lord Of The Rings) propelled her to international celebrity. Lennox has utilized this cache of recognition as a platform for addressing social issues, most notably, her work on behalf of Aids victims and poverty-stricken women and children in Africa.

Fittingly, Christmas Cornucopia is a project that reflects Lennox’s diverse background. Showcasing a myriad of sounds and narratives, this unique Christmas album is both uplifting and introspective. Recognizable songs like “Angels From The Realms Of Glory” have a decidedly pulsating tone with Lennox’s creative, synthesized keyboards, a thirty-piece orchestra, and overdubbed vocals. Fans of her singing style will appreciate the accented vocal layers. Another modern update, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentelman” takes on a droning Middle Eastern auditory tone with the use of oud, synthesized whistle and reed organ parts. “The First Noel” and “Silent Night” receive a somewhat traditional interpretation.

There are some lesser known pieces that strike an interesting contrast to the standard Christmastide fare. “Il Est Ne Le Enfant” and “The Holly And The Ivy” start with a subtle melody, driven by the powerful singer, and are brought to sublime crescendo by The African Children’s Choir (recorded in Capetown). “Lullay Lullay” (Coventry carol) recounts a dark biblical story as a contemporary allegory with piercing chants and dramatic percussion. This atypical album is coalesced by the addition of an original composition, “Universal Child” (the first single). Strong gospel piano and lead vocal are augmented by a string arrangement, as Christmas is applied to a modern context.

Christmas Cornucopia
is original and audacious. The sound quality is excellent, and captures the bold essence of Annie Lennox. 

TrackList: Angels From The Realms Of Glory; God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman; See Amid The Winter’s Snow; Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant; The First Noel; Lullay Lullay (Coventry carol); The Holly And The Ivy; In The Bleak Midwinter; As Joseph Was A Walking; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; Silent Night; Universal Children.

– Robbie Gerson

Alexis Cole Family & Friends – The Greatest Gift – Songs of the Season – Motema.com MTM-26 ****:

An unusually varied Christmas CD performed and produced by singer Alexis Cole in collaboration with her singer/songwriter father and over 50 NYC musicians. They all donated their talents in support of the work of the World Bicycle Relief organization, which provides access to health care, education and economic development in needy countries thru the power of bicycles.  There are two short videos on the Enhanced CD that show what World Bicycle Relief does in Africa.

Among the performers on the album along with Alexis Cole are Mark Finkin, the St. James Quartet, violinist Christian Howes, saxist Don Braden, and the St. Paul’s Children’s Choir. While the album has a general jazz flavor, there is a variety of styles in these approaches to mostly standard Christmas carols, and things don’t get too wild. It would probably appeal even to those who don’t like jazz. Cole also did most of the arrangements, and they are quite lovely. It actually was first released for Christmas 2009, so is getting a second release herewith.

TrackList:

Joy To the World
Jeanette Isabella/ the Call
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Rise Up Shepherd, and Follow
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Christmas Time is Here (Prelude)
Christmas Time is Here
What Child is This?
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Away In a Manger
Silent Night
Happiest Christmas
Jesus is the Best Part of Christmas

– John Henry

Greta Matassa & Clipper Anderson – And to All a Good Night – Origin Records  82578 ****:

(Greta Matassa – vocals; Clipper Anderson – bass, vocals; Mark Ivester – drums & percussion; Susan Pascal – vibes, marimba, orchestra bells, glockenspiel; Jennifer Lind Ivester – vocals, choral arrangements; Allie Ivester – vocals; Graysie Ivester – vocals; David Lange – accordion, celeste; Jay Mabin – harmonica)

This is definitely the Christmas CD to get if you want something jazzy and hip and not the same old same old. Of the dozen songs here, I think the only one that was familiar to me was Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings.”  Didn’t know there were so many appropriate popular tunes for the holidays that didn’t make the sophisticated listener grimace.

Clipper Anderson reports that he’s known as "Mr. Christmas" around the house and has been collecting these tunes for some time now. He feels they deserve a wider audience, and hopefully this album will aid in that. “The Bells That Couldn’t Jingle” came from a Christmas album by the Tijuana Brass, and “Where Can I Find Christmas” from the movie for TV The Bear That Slept Thru Christmas. So you can get an idea where Anderson came up with some of these.

Some top compositional talents are represented: “It’s Christmas Time” is Victor Young’s, Henry Mancini penned “Every Christmas Eve,” and “November in the Snow” is from bandleader/arranger Billy Mays with words by Mark Murphy. Burt Bacharach is the source of the closing “Christmas Day.”  As you can see by the credits, this was a family affair for the Ivesters. All the performers are top rate; this is an unexpected and most enjoyable CD.

TrackList:

1 A Christmas Love Song 4:51 (Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Johnny Mandel)
2 The Bell that Couldn’t Jingle 2:58 (Burt Bacharach, Larry Kusik)
3 The First Snowfall 4:27 (Paul F. Webster, Joseph F. Burke, Sonny Burke)
4 It’s Christmas 3:23 (Duncan Lamont)
5 Where Can I Find Christmas 3:22 (Doug Goodwin)
6 Count Your Blessings 3:02 (Irving Berlin)
7 It’s Christmas Time / Sleep Well Little Children 3:38 (Victor Young, Al Stillman / Alan Bergman, Leon Klatzkin)
8 Every Christmas Eve / Giving 5:00 (Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse)
9 November in the Snow 3:15 (Bill Mays, Mark Murphy)
10 It’s Christmas Time Again 4:30 (J. Elliot, S. Burke, J.K. Harwood)
11 It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year 2:54 (George Wyle, Eddie Pola)
12 Christmas Day 3:26 (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)


Christmas Jazz! – A Collection of Swinging Tunes for the Holidays – Nagel Heyer Records NH 1008 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:

Now we’re talkin’! – just the holiday album for one who prefers jazz and instrumentals to  vocals. This compilation from the enterprising German label Nagel Heyer carries a date of 1999, so I guess it’s also being recycled each Christmas. Only a couple of the tracks were recorded in Germany; the rest in NYC or Toronto. Among the performers are Mark Shane, Jim Galloway, Jay McShann, the Sackville All Stars, the Jan Harrigton Band, Chris Murrell and Bobby Irving III.  This reminded me of the couple of old Columbia jazz Christmas collections that featured Brubeck, Ellington, and others of that ilk.  They still stand up beautifully for swinging holiday music, and this one goes right alongside them.

TrackList:

Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Christmas Song, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Winter Wonderland, Christmas in New Orleans, Good King Wenceslaus, O Christmas Tree, Auld Lang Syne, Silent Night, Sleight Ride, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus in the Spring

John Sheridan’s Dream Band: Hooray for Christmas! – Arbors Jazz ARCD 19397 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

(John Sheridan – piano, leader, arrangements; Warren Vaché – cornet; Randy Reinhart – cornet; Dan Barrett – cornet, trombone; Russ Philips – trombone; Ron Hockett – clarinet, alto sax; Scott Robinson – clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax; Dan Block – clarinet, alto/tenor/baritone sax; Eddie Erickson – guitar, vocal; Phil Flanigan, doublebass; Joe Ascione – drums; Rebecca Kilgore – vocals)

Another delightful jazzy Christmas album of mostly instrumentals (three vocal numbers) – with none of the “over-roasted chestnuts” (as the note booklet calls them) except for the closing track of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” John Sheridan says he was involved in two previous Christmas albums and always wanted to do one of his own. He started with a master list of nearly 50 tunes and pared it down to these 13 for the CD. Again, aside from track 13, these were mostly unfamiliar to me. There is another Christmas tune by Irving Berlin, with similar feeling to his on the above CD: “Plenty to be Thankful For.” Other writers of tunes include Don Sebesky, Sammy Cahn, Steve Allen (“Cool Yule”), Harry Warren, and Dave Frishberg. Rebecca Kilgore’s duet with Eddie Erickson on “The Christmas Blues” is a kick, and the Dream Band really swings on every track. 

Someone said “This year’s tunes of holly leave me melancholy.”  Well, not this one. I consider it a keeper.

TrackList:

Hooray For Christmas!
Pocketful Of Miracles
Holiday Season, The
Christmas Will Be A Little Lonely This Year
(Everybody’s Waiting For) The Man With The Bag
Christmas Blues, The
Cool Yule
I Know Why And So Do You
Plenty To Be Thankful For
Song For Christmas, A
Little Jack Frost Get Lost
Difficult Season, The
Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

– John Henry

 

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