Media

Music for Christmas - Part I

Classical Carols: Jeffrey Biegel, piano (Koch International Classics KIC-CD-7737)

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2007-12-Holiday1-cuivres.jpgWhat better way to start this year's survey of new holiday-themed CD/DVD releases than with this nostalgic performance by Passion Des Cuivres, the brass ensemble that won the 2005 Nikolaus Harnoncourt Prize just two years after it was founded? Composed of musicians from Dresden, London and Befrlin, the group plays historic instruments from the Victorian era, including cornet (instead of trumpet), ophicleide (instead of tuba), simple F horn, and narrow-bore trombone. Repertoire mixes the familiar (Handel, Christmas carols, O Holy Night, etc.) with less familiar fare by Sir Arthur Sullivan, Henry Purcell, and a bloke named Holst. Soprano Costanze Backes sings two selections with winning innocence, despite an accent that smacks of Bayreuth rather than Bristol.

J.S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 16: New York | For the Sunday After Christmas | The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria SDG 137)

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J.S. BachA follow up to two previous CDs devoted to Bach's cantatas for Christmas (Vol. 14 and 15), this live CD celebrates the final concert of John Eliot Gardiner's year long Bach Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage began on Christmas Day in Wiemar in 1999, traveled throughout Europe, and ended in New York in 2000. Performing each Sunday, Gardiner managed to perform all Bach's surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day within a single year. With new cantatas learned, rehearsed and performed every week, this unprecedented pilgrimage produced a remarkably high level of singing and playing. Listening to the heavenly simplicity of the voices and musicians on this CD, it's hard to imagine that anything less than divine intervention made these glorious performances possible. Highest recommendation.

William Ferris: Snowcarols | William Ferris Chorale, Paul French conductor (Cedille CDR 90000 101)

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William FerrisWilliam Ferris (1937-2000) was a lifetime Chicagoan who, as chair of the theory department at the American Conservatory of Music, created a number of major works for his own chorale. The almost 37-minute Snowcarols, joins nine other shorter settings on this CD. To text by John Vorrasi, Ferris dedicates the first movement to then-President Jimmy Carter, and another to Eric Fenby, his personal friend and amanuensis of composer Frederick Delius. Ferris' language has been described as "polymodal chromaticism," which translates into easily accessible and modern sounding. The chorale sometimes sounds overly studied in enunciation, and the performances can sound plodding. But the definitive nature of these performances makes them self-recommending for those wishing to explore new contemporary holiday music.

Lara Brothers: Parang Caribbean Christmas (Winter & Winter 910 139-2)

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Lara BrothersWhat have we here? The CD starts off with the sounds of a traditional steel band, and all of a sudden, we've gotthea roar of traffic, folks laughing and shouting, and a very realistic dog barking left and right. We've just heard "Sounds of Trinidad," the first track of a short CD that includes authentic Parang folk songs sung by the one-of-a-kind Lara Brothers. The brothers, Tito and Willie, have spent over 60 years going house-to-house in their rural Trinidad community singing traditional songs and telling Christmas stories in adulterated Spanish. Sometimes friends and neighbors join in, playing, singing, and eating their fill. Lord knows how old these boys are. With one page of the CD brochure devoted to beer bottle caps, it's clear that Christmas cheer flows in many forms. At a time when synthesizers and drum machines have altered the development of Parang, this CD thankfully preserves the original tradition. Spirits cost extra.

Best Carols 100 (EMI 50999-5-10371-23)

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Lara BrothersThis 6-CD set cannot be beat. In addition to entire discs devoted to the Choir of King's College, Cambridge; Clare College Singers, Cambridge; Taverner Consort, Choir and Players; Choir of King's College, Cambridge; and a mix of the Huddersfield Choral Society, Bach Choir, and Halle Choir, there's a special disc devoted to such "Star Performers" as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Roberta Alagna, Kiri te Kanawa, Thomas Hampson, Hermann Prey, Barbara Hendricks, and The King's Singers. Name a favorite Christmas carol, and it's probably here, better sung than on 20 other compilations. Some selections could definitely use digital remastering from the analog originals, but as background music or for sing-alongs, they will warm your heart as much as the sweetest apple cider.

The Taverner Consort: Christmas Carols (Virgin Classics 5099950 368020)

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The Taverner ConsortFour CDs this time: Festive Music from Europe and America, Nine Centuries of Seasonal Music, and Seven Centuries of Christmas Music. Recorded digitally between 1987 and 1995, soloists include Emily van Evera, Tessa Bonner of Tallis Scholars fame, Catherine King, and Charles Daniels. The elegance, grace, and simplicity of these arrangements, superbly performed by early music specialists, push this wonderful set to the top of anyone's list… or at least the list of anyone who doesn't think that rap is the first and last word on all things spiritual.

Puer Nobis Nascitur: Christmas Carols | Ton Koopman (Challenge Classics CC72234)

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Puer Nobis NasciturPlaying the historic Van Peteghem rococo organ of St. Martinuskerk, Haringe, Belgium, completed in 1778 and miraculously well-preserved without modernization, keyboardist and conductor Ton Koopman presents a varied program of music by Daquin, Bull, Sweelinck, Zipoli, Dandrieu, Bruna, Buxtehude, Lebegue, and J.S. Bach. Even in cases where the music is familiar, this amazing organ, complete with clicks, echo effects, and tones rarely if ever heard from modern instruments, makes the program unique. I literally found myself jumping from track to track, eager to hear what combination of bizarre and familiar sounds this instrument would produce next.

Hearken to the Angel's Song (Hort der Engel helle Lieder) (Hänssler Classic CD 98.431)

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Hearken to the Angel's SongPerforming some lesser-known choral and organ music for Advent and Christmas written in the 16th through 19th centuries, St.-Andreas-Kantorei Hildesheim, Kammerchor Hildesheim, Bach-Orchester St. Andreas, and organist Roland Maria Stangier, all under the direction of Bernhard Romer, sing and play beautifully. You'll know some of the composers – Brahms, Praetorius, Schutz, and Mendelssohn –and be happy to make the acquaintance of others. The organ is appropriately thunderous, the choir meticulous in its enunciation and observation of dynamics. For a different take on Christmas than that afforded by English forces, this recording is warmly recommended.

Bruno Herbert Trio / B3 Kings: A Cellar Live Christmas (Cellar Live 87905)

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Bruno Herbert TrioWhere do some of these CDs come from? I know this one originated from The Cellar in Vancouver, BC, but where the jazz musicians who compose this piano/bass/drums trio and B3 combo of alto sax/guitar/B3 organ/drums/vocals came up with this curious mixture of swinging jazz and Christmas riffs is beyond me. Some will groove on this music, others find it a curious mixture of outer space meets inner funkdom. Rum-pa-pum-pum and all that jazz.

Bob McGrath: Christmas Sing Along (Bob's Kids Music 4101803)

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Bob McGrathOh my gosh, it's Bob from Sesame Street! In the sweetest little good boy voice, he invites us to join him, a host of musicians, and the Young People's Chorus of New York City in singing 15 favorite Christmas melodies. Bob is good enough to supply lyrics, and Mike Renzi, musical director of Sesame Street, contributes the carefree arrangements. This CD has the name of my five-month old nephew, Trevor Michael, written all over it. I'll bet you know someone else, perhaps someone old enough to watch Sesame Street, who would love it as well.

Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (narrated by Sting) (DG DVD B0008194-09)

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Sergei ProkofievAs a holiday alternative to Tchaikovsky's perennial Nutcracker, this sparkling DVD is filled with cheer. To a combination of fanciful footage, puppets, members of the Theatre de Complicite (sometimes wearing masks), dancers, ice skaters, circus performers, and animation, Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe present one of the most charming Peter and the Wolfs you are ever likely to see and hear. To make the celebration more ecumenical, the DVD also includes an animated/theatrical version of Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and an equally theatrical take on the Classical Symphony. Initially released in 1993, this Prokofiev Fantasy will leave you smiling.

Christmas in Rome: Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh | The English Concert & Choir, Trevor Pinnock (DG DVD 00440 073 4361)

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Christmas in Rome: Gabrieli ConsortCombining two programs taped in 1993, this DVD melds lovely singing with visuals of performers and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Even if you don't want close-ups of singers and the church tower as you listen to Victoria, Palestrina, Josquin and others, the subtitles are certainly helpful. The English Concert, complete with such famed soloists as Nancy Argenta, contributes Alessandro Scarlatti's Pastoral Cantata for the Birth of our Lord, Corelli's Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6 No. 8 "Christmas Concerto," and Vivaldi's Gloria. Frankly, I'd rather listen to a CD version of this music, which would have better sound, but for those who prefer visuals, this one's a winner.

The Birth of Christ: A Christmas Cantata by Andrew T. Miller (Sony Classical DVD 88697-16686-9 – also available on CD)

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The Birth of ChristThis new DVD begins with Liam Neeson giving a sincere plug for peace and international union, reminding us that peace and beauty are still attainable. "Grace is rarely found in a mob," he states. "Come celebrate and wonder at history's first great mystery." I question whether the best way to promote unity among faiths and ethnicities is to chauvinistically discount all the great spiritual mysteries that preceded Christ's coming, including the great pyramids of Egypt. Be that as it may, this new oratorio unites some of the very same choirs Handel used to unveil his Messiah in 1742, if not for the same exalted ends. Neeson reads quotes from scripture between sections. The music is simple, sentimental, and occasionally overdone in a popular kind of way. Don't expect any of Handel's contrapuntal and melodic brilliance.