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Classical Music - Part 21 - December, 2000

Music for the Holidays


Jason Serinus

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When the UPS driver awoke me at some ungodly hour of the morning to deliver yet another overnight package of Christmas music, I wondered why, if Christ had risen, I had to arise as well. But there was no question I had to proceed, albeit sleep-deprived, with my quest to uncover the Secrets of the best new classically flavored Christmas releases of the New Millennium.

Perhaps 19 releases arrived in time for me to subject them to a high level of reviewing scrutiny. Others arrived after the time limit, when I was forced to turn my attention to other projects. Of the latecomers, the most promising will be mentioned briefly at the end of this review.

Please note that, when I embarked on this project, I asked classical distributors to limit their offerings to new releases. While most complied, a few crossed the line. The excellent Anonymous 4 and Helicon discs were released in 1998 and 1999 respectively, while several of the discs mentioned at the end of this review are even older in origin. I have made no attempt to investigate some of the classic Christmas recordings of years past, such as solo albums by Leontyne Price, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Luciano Pavarotti et. al. What I remember of them is that these are certainly preferable to the three year 2000 operatic holiday recitals that came my way.  

CHRISTMAS MUSIC FROM ETON COLLEGE • Eton College Chapel Choir • Ralph Allwood  ASV CD QS 6246

For Christmas carols, how more authentic can you get than the choir of Eton College, founded by King Henry VI in 1440 in honor of the Virgin Mary? The choir, a combination of boys and young men with voices ranging from soprano to bass, sings unaccompanied save for a track or two with organ. Twenty selections, over 65 minutes in length, include 16th century carols; Ave Marias by Josquin, Parsons, Ockeghem and Mendelssohn; and 20th century works by Taverner, Britten, and Warlock. The recording is quite fine, with a large, resonant soundstage that does not obscure the clarity of voices.

THE MOST FABULOUS CHRISTMAS ALBUM EVER! • VARIOUS • RCA/BMG 09026-63712-2

As soon as the winning Boston Pops Orchestra’s version of Anderson’s "Sleigh Ride," the first track on this compilation of 28 classic takes on Christmas, began jingling along, I cracked up. If you or your parents were born in this country, here is the mass market Christmas music that you were probably raised on.

Recorded between 1956 and 1986, this disc features over 77 generous minutes of selections by the Pops, Robert Shaw Chorale, Arthur Fiedler, Sergio Franchi, The Canadian Brass, The Philadelphia Orchestra & Chorus, RCA Symphony Orchestra, and others mentioned below. Some selections are quite lovely, such as Benita Valente’s "He Shall Feed his Flock" from Handel’s Messiah, or the Vienna Choir Boys singing "In Dulci Jubilo"; others are positively tasteless, such as Placido Domingo’s Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria," where a drum underscores his high note. Included is perhaps the most prosaic version of "O Holy Night" ever recorded, a Mario Lanza rendition in which he and his chorus sound like they’re determined to get the whole thing over with so they can hit Macy’s before it closes. Equally disturbing is Lanza’s English version of “O Tannenbaum,” in which he repeatedly praises the strength and beauty of his Christmas tree, but chops it down regardless.

It’s all here: the world’s most sanitized versions of "Jingle Bells," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and "The Little Drummer Boy." The great Leontyne Price’s contribution aside, it all sounds like very white Christmas music from a stereotyped age when Negroes gave a great shine, Hispanics picked the best grapes, and gays made the most wonderful hairdressers. (I don't intend any offenses; it was a dark part of our history.) I loved it, I hated it, and though I screamed out loud any number of times, I listened to it all.

LEGENDS OF ST. NICHOLAS: MEDIEVAL CHANT AND POLYPHONY •  ANONYMOUS 4 •  HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907232

This lovely 70 minute disc contains almost all surviving medieval polyphonic hymns, chants and motets in honor of St. Nicholas. To these are added readings about St. Nicholas, taken from the English translation of Jacobus of Voragine late 13th century Golden Legend and set to music using melodic formulas found in Middle English song and chant. Singing and scholarship are by Anonymous 4, a superb unaccompanied quartet of four women who specialize in medieval songs and chant.

This album’s sweet, sacred simplicity bathes the spirit in the same way that Christ washed his flock of their sins. These women love and believe in this music, and their faith illumines its gifts.

A NOSTALGIC MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU: 24 Original Recordings from 1915-1949 • ASV CD AJA 4178

OK, it's not classical, but what the heck, it's Christmas. Here’s a delightful 79 minute compilation filled with 24 light-hearted selections by Vera Lynn, Spike Jones (silly), Perry Como, Bing Crosby (a delight), Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole (as perfect as you’d expect), The Andrew Sisters, Dinah Shore, Gene Autry, Bessie Smith (fabulous), the famed Comedy Harmonists, opera singers John McCormack and Richard Tauber (who could turn anything he sang, from Schubert to schmalz, into high art), and several English soloists and groups from earlier eras. The music is consistently enjoyable, its mostly innocent charm proving perfect background for a holiday get-together. Mom and Grandpa will love it, while young ‘uns may wish they too could find their days accompanied by such smooth sounds. The absolute antithesis of hip-hop.  

A WINTER SOLSTICE WITH HELICON • DORIAN DOR-90276

This 52 minute disc breaks from the Christmas “mold” to present spirited and captivating acoustic arrangements of folk music suitable for the season, perfectly performed by Helicon, a Baltimore-based instrument ensemble whose mission is the cultivation and interpretation of traditional folk music from around the world. Heliconists Chris Norman, Ken Kolodner, and Robin Bullock bring a wonderful combination of flutes, piccolo, pipes, whistle, piano, percussion, hammer dulcimer, fiddle, guitar, and cittern to interpretations of traditional music from Israel, England, Ireland, South America, Kenya, Denmark, France, China, Russia, Mexico, and the U.S.  There are even some Jewish selections. Recorded in the fabled acoustic of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, the audiophile quality of this Dorian 24-bit recording enhances Helicon’s beautiful musicianship. 

CYRUS CHESTNUT & FRIENDS • A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS • ATLANTIC 83366-2

Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, whose previous recordings include a Tribute to Duke Ellington, fell in love with the late Vince Guaraldi’s light-filled music for the Peanuts® TV specials when he was a child. Throughout high school, Chestnut was known as the guy who you could always ask to play some Charlie Brown. Now, 35 years after the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Chestnut taps into the love of his youth to create a wonderful tribute to Peanuts® and the late Charles Schulz.  

Chestnut enlists a fine ensemble of jazz players to accompany his piano and occasional organ and Fender Rhodes. The 14 selections on this 61 minute album include five Guaraldi tunes (with Vanessa Williams and The Boys Choir of Harlem on “Christmas Time is Here”); three by Chestnut; Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (with Brian McKnight on vocals); and Chestnut’s arrangements of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (with Hubert Laws on flute), “What Child is This?” (with The Manhattan Transfer on vocals), “O Tannenbaum” (without the words, thank God), “Greensleeves,” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

It’s not simply because I was “The Voice of Woodstock” whistling Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” in the Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon, She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, that I give this album three thumbs up. It’s a sheer delight, the interpretations perfectly conveying Chestnut’s love of Peanuts and the holiday season. If you’re afraid that a Grinch may steal your Xmas, play this album, and he is sure to go elsewhere; the energy is that positive.  

J.S. BACH: CHIRSTMAS CANTATAS •  JOHN ELIOT GARDINER • THE MONTEVERDI CHOIRE • THE ENGLISH BAROQUE SOLOISTS • ARCHIV 463 589-2

This new 81 minute recording of four church cantatas, probably composed between 1715 and 1724 for the three-day Christmas celebration practiced in Bach’s time, comes as a fitting close to the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

Bach’s first biographer wrote that Bach’s music “transports us to the regions of the ideal. It …grips us stronger the oftener we listen to it so that, after a thousand hearings, its treasures are still unexhausted and yield fresh beauties to excite our wonder.” Certainly these recordings reinforce such a noble assessment. There is much lightness here, Bach’s melodies reminding us anew why, when recordings of his works were played 24 hours a day in famed experiments documented in The Secret Life of Plants, plants were observed to lean toward and even wrap themselves around the speakers. If you wish to open yourself anew to the magic essence that is human life, this is a good place to start.

 ••• THE LATECOMERS •••

Most intriguing of the lot is NATIVITAS: AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROLS  (NIMBUS NI 5413), a 1994 release in which the Kansas City Chorale, conducted by Charles Bruffy, sings a combination of new 20th Century works and new arrangements of traditional carols. While the Conrad Susa and Charles Ives pieces have been recorded before, all the rest – by John Carter, Ned Rorem, Jean Belmont, Leo Sowerby, Arnold Freed, Normal Dello Joio, Joel Martinson, and Henry Cowell, plus new arrangements of “Silent Night” by Mark Johnson and Kevin Oldham, and of “I Saw Three Ships” by Edwin Fissinger – receive(d) world premieres. This is not background music for a holiday party, but it is great for serious listening, especially for the choristers among our readership.

If it’s background music you’re after, Naxos has just released A CLASSIC CHRISTMAS; SONGS OF PRAISE (NAXOS 8.555292) and A CLASSIC CHRISTMAS: FOR YOUR FAMILY (NAXOS 8.555291). The former is a compilation of traditional sacred carols and classical works, while the latter is a lighter-in-spirit assemblage that includes sing-alongs on “Jingle Bells” and “Up on the Housetop.” Naxos also has two Thanksgiving compilations that look mighty nice.

Finally TELARC has sent me two 20-bit 1997 compilations, the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers’ A ROBERT SHAW CHRISTMAS; ANGELS ON HIGH (TELARC CD-80461), and Yolanda Kondonassis’ Surround Sound DREAM SEASON: THE CHRISTMAS HARP (TELARC CD-80446). The latter includes, in addition to some traditional fare, “Ukranian Bell Carol,” “Short Fantasy on a Neapolitan Carol,” “Huron Indian Carol,” and the title “Dream Season.” The former is probably as smooth and warm as can be, while the latter is undoubtedly heavenly. These will probably prove perfect for sitting by the fire or around your massive, heat-generating power amp, bathed only in candlelight (a good idea, given the kind of electrical shortages and deregulation rate hikes we’re experiencing in California), and reflecting on your blessings.

 - Jason Serinus -

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