Special Features

Christmas Discs Survey

Time for the annual listing of Christmas discs

Published on December 12, 2009

Christmas Discs Survey
Christmas Discs Survey

It’s that time of the year again, and what a delightful way to start it off. Let’s put the classical ones at the head of the list and proceed from there:

Carols by Candlelight = Music for Advent and Christmas – Choir of Magdalen College Oxford/ Bill Ives, director/ Martin Ford, organ – Harmonia mundi 907495, 73:46 ****:

Ah, Christmas as only the English can do it—or at least used to. With Britain fast becoming the most secularized post-Christian society in the world, one wonders how long albums like this will be able to be made, with a straight face anyway. It will be interesting to see if religion sociologist Philip Jenkins’ contention that Europe will be re-evangelized from the growing Christian countries in the southern hemisphere comes true. In the meanwhile, I suppose we have to be grateful that some places are able to maintain the Christian tradition—especially at Christmas—in form if not in spirit.

And most of us all know how the English do Christmas musically. The all-men-and-boys cathedral tradition is alive and well in this recording by the estimable Bill Ives and his Magdalen Collegians. That means several organ interludes, a lot of unison singing with organ accompaniment, and a smattering of mixed-nationality pieces along with traditional British tunes and a smorgasbord of ancient to modern works.

This one is as good a mix as any. HM’s sound is superior as usual, along its traditionally excellent production values, and would seem to fit in just fine with those needing a grab-bad of English Christmas values, so prevalent now in the U.S. in places like St. Olaf’s College, one of many areas in the New World attempting to keep alive this basically English-started type of celebration.

Magdalen’s last Christmas effort with HM was 2004’s With a Merrie Noyse which was nominated for a Grammy award. I don’t think things have changed much since then.
1) Creator alme siderum by Anonymous
2) Traditional English Carols (8): No. 6, The truth sent from above, by Ralph Vaughan Williams
3) An earthly tree by William Byrd
4) View me, Lord by Charles Wood
5) Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland by Johann Sebastian Bach
6) I look from afar by Giovanni Palestrina
7) In adventu: Rorate coeli by Giovanni Palestrina
8) How beautiful upon the mountains by John Stainer
9) O Come, O Come, Emmanuel by Thomas Helmore
10) Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten
11) The blessed Son of God by Ralph Vaughan Williams
12) In dulci jubilo by Anonymous
13) Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BuxWV 223 by Dietrich Buxtehude
14) Of the Father’s heart begotten by Anonymous
15) Pastores loquebantur by Francisc Guerrero
16) Ninna nanna a Gesu by Traditional
17) Maria Wiegenlied by Traditional
18) Sweet was the song of the Virgin by Traditional
19) Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock
20) Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’, BWV 662 by Johann Sebastian Bach
21) Sir Christèmas by William Mathias
22) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, Op. 75 no 2 by John Gardner
23) Festgesang "Hark! The herald angels sing" by Felix Mendelssohn

— Steven Ritter

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral – From Advent to Christmas & the Epiphany and Presentation of Our Lord = Rorate caeli (plainsong); BYRD: Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Advent; Psalm 2 (plainsong); MATTHEW MARTIN: Adam lay ybounden; GEORGE MALCOLM: Missa Ad praesepe; MONTEVERDI: Messa a 4 da cappella; MAURICE BEVAN: Magnificat; CHARLES WOOD: Nunc dimittis; March des Rois mages (organ improvisation) – Choir of Westminster Cathedral/ Matthew Martin, organ/ Martin Baker, conductor – Hyperion 67707,  77:55 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Would there were more Christmas albums like this one coming out in droves each year. The Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral Choir’s newest foray into seasonal bliss gives us a riveting mixture of superb old and excellent new that compliment one another in an easily assimilated way. Interspersed with wonderful monophonic Gregorian chants accompanied by simply organ harmonies, we delve into luscious Byrd, Monteverdi, and Victoria that this all-male choir (yes, including boys and countertenors) serve up with passion and a palpably resilient resonance that lifts one out of the listening chair and transports immediately into seasonable bliss.

And if that wasn’t enough, the “new” music on this disc, from Matthew Martin’s (b. 1976, and playing a monster organ on this album) god-squad-like piece Adam lay ybounden (on anonymous 15th century English lyrics) to recently reposed George Malcolm’s (1917-97) beautifully trenchant Missa Ad praesepe done in a medieval style, Maurice Bevan’s (1921-2006) Magnificat (with wonderful organ interludes and Gabrieli-like high voice writing) and the Nunc dimittis by Charles Wood (1866-1926) with its Rachmaninov-style scoring (it reminded me of the Vespers) – wow!

We end with a March of the King be aforementioned organist Martin, capping a beautiful Christmas program that this reviewer from the deep south in Atlanta can only offer praise to the Hyperionites across the pond. Nice job, folks.

— Steven Ritter   

Intro to next two reviews:

The music of my childhood Christmas memories revolves around a dozen or so LPs from my parent’s collection that leaned very heavily in the pop direction, and it’s really amazing to me how my current preference in Christmas music has been shaped by that experience. I like a holiday music cocktail heavy on the Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, with a dash of Sinatra and maybe of jigger or two of Dino Martin to get that requisite and holiday-appropriately festive lounge-feel. But my folks were not completely without culture, and their collection balanced their pop-oriented sensibilities with good company that included the Boston Pops, Philadelphia Orchestra and the Robert Shaw Chorale. These two new multi-disc box sets from Sony Classics offer a scintillating mix of classic performances from the Sony/BMG library that are guaranteed to help you strike the perfect balance between more classically-oriented orchestral, pops, choral and vocal Christmas music and the usual pop holiday fare:       

Carols For Christmas – Original Album Classics box set – featuring Mario Lanza with orchestra conducted by Paul Baron; The Robert Shaw Chorale with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Eileen Farrell with orchestra conducted by Luther Henderson; Placido Domingo with the Vienna Boys Choir – Sony Classics 88697561742 (5 CDs)  225 minutes – Rating: ***1/2:

Carols For Christmas
offers five enjoyable collections that include discs by Mario Lanza, Placido Domingo with the Vienna Boys Choir, Eileen Farrell, Leonard Bernstein with the NYPO and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Robert Shaw Chorale. The Robert Shaw disc, The Many Moods of Christmas, is a true classic that displays his remarkable vision of choral conducting. Additionally, his musical approach gives many of the carols interesting twists that really help set this album apart from the pack. The Eileen Farrell disc, Carols For Christmas, is also noteworthy, in that she takes a less operatic approach to the sixteen selections, almost totally resisting the usual urge to really belt the carols out, thereby giving them a much more intimate and enjoyable presentation. Mario Lanza’s Lanza Sings Christmas Carols finds the golden-throated baritone offering full-blown orchestration with choral accompaniment as he traverses a classic collection of carols. And the Leonard Bernstein-led Joy Of Christmas presents the New York Philharmonic along with the Mormon Tabernacle in a big-band orchestral and choral spectacle guaranteed to outnumber all the other contenders. The disc that I found something of a curiosity in the collection is Placido Domingo and the Vienna Choir Boys, which includes classic offerings of “Adeste Fideles,” “Panis Angelicus” and “Ave Maria,” but little else that strikes my holiday sensibilities. Must be a Viennese thing! There’s a title in the RCA catalog that pairs Placido Domingo and the VCB’s that includes a broader selection of true carols, so this disc’s inclusion in the set still strikes me as a little strange. Regardless, though – there’s a boatload of quite festive caroling in this five-disc box!

The Joy Of Christmas – Original Album Classics box set – featuring Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra; The Philadelphia Brass Ensemble; The Original Cast of Amahl And The Night Visitors; Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Temple University Choir; Marilyn Horne with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – Sony Classics 88697561732 (5 CDs)  215 minutes – Rating: ****:

The Joy Of Christmas
also includes five discs and features three indisputable classics; the Arthur Fiedler/Boston Pops Pops Christmas Party; the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble’s Festival of Carols in Brass; and the Eugene Ormandy-led Philadelphia Orchestra disc, The Glorious Sound of Christmas. The Boston Pops disc is probably my all-time favorite classically oriented holiday disc; the potpourri of exquisitely rendered pop tunes and classical bon bons is darn near irresistible! One of the tunes, Mozart’s “Schlittenfahrt” (Sleigh Ride), is absolute ear candy to listen to, but it’s naughty-sounding title used to get our local mid-afternoon NPR host giggling foolishly as he attempted to announce it year after year. The Philadelphia Brass album is also remarkably good, and while the twenty-five selections average only a minute-and-a-half or so in length, they serve as perfectly proportioned holiday listening treats to spice-up your Christmas mix! With The Glorious Sound of Christmas, Eugene Ormandy’s renowned Philadelphia string section is on full display, and the orchestra and chorus manage the balancing act of musical delicacy and full-blown orchestral virtuosity quite splendidly. The original cast recording of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Amahl And The Night Visitors is also included here; his one-act operetta based around the nativity story has become an enduring holiday classic. The box set is rounded out with Christmas With Marilyn Horne, and accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, she offers fully-realized renditions of classic Christmas carols.

These excellent box sets offer a number of choices in holiday music that haven’t been previously available, and they’re excellent values as well – I’ve seen each of these sets offered online for less than forty bucks. And with each clocking in at three-plus hours of music – well, there’s something for everyone here! And for those of us whose collections lean a little too heavily on the pop music side – well, it’s an excellent opportunity to mix things up quite a bit. Highly recommended – put these sets in your CD changers, start trimming the tree and break out the egg nog!

— Tom Gibbs

Eugene Ruffolo, vocals – Even Santa Gets the Blues – Stockfisch stereo-only SACD SFR 357.4066.2, 51:04 ****:

(with Chris Jones, Ian Melrose, Peter Ratzenbeck, Front Porch Picking and many others)

Never mind the title, this is an extremely well-done pop Christmas album built around many of the stalwart acoustic music-makers of the German audiophile label. The lead vocal Eugene Ruffolo will appeal strongly to all the James Taylor fans, and the arrangements are tasteful and not a bit corny. The album was originally conceptualized some time ago by Stockfisch producer Chris Jones, who is still heard on two of the tracks, but he passed away in the meantime. The 16 tracks are not all vocals; Silent Night is a lovely guitar instrumental. Those audiophiles with the two-channel-only high end SACD decks should find this one under their tree.

TrackList: Let It Snow, Here It Is Christmas, The Sweetest Part, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Christmas Time is Here, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Away in a Manger, The Christmas Song, Nothing But a Child, Stille Nacht, Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, Even Santa Gets the Blues, One Bright Star, O Holy Night, We Three Kings.

Eddie Allen – Jazzy Brass for the Holidays – DBCD 003 ****:

(Eddie Allen, trumpet & leader; Cecil Bridgewater, trumpet; W. Marshall Sealy, Fr. horn; Clark Gayton, trombone; Kenny Davis, doublebass; Carl Allen, drums & glockenspiel)

Trumpeter Eddie Allen made all 14 these arrangements of holiday favorites with a jazz flavor but always keeping the memorable melodies prominent in the mix. Allen is also a composer, conductor, clinician and author. He currently leads a jazz quartet, a quintet, an Afro-Cuban septet and a 17-piece big band. He’s worked with such people as Art Blakey, Mongo Santamaria, Clark Terry and Joe Henderson.

The arrangements are clever and fairly swinging, not just a bunch of jazzmen slogging thru the tunes because it’s expected of them at holiday events. I also liked that the fidelity is excellent and there’s no vocals. What can I say?  The title says it all.

TrackList: It Came Upon the Midnite Clear, Go Tell It on the Mountain, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Away in a Manger, Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells, What Child is This?, Deck the Hall, Let it Snow!, We Three Kings, Good King Wenceslas/Cool King Wenceslas, The Little Drummer Boy, O Holy Night.

Trio West Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2 – Yummyhouse Records **** [drums@nyc.rr.com]:

(Eldad Zvulun, piano; Neal Miner, doublebass; Toblas Gebb, drums & producer)

Here’s a similar set of rearranged Christmas favorites, only with a piano trio setting instead of a brass quartet. Drummer Gebb is responsible for all the arrangements of the 11 tracks. Some of the tunes get an encore in a Latin or waltz style.  Very enjoyable background music for your holiday gatherings.

We Three Kings, O Tannenbaum Funk, Joy to the World, Jingle Bells, Noel, Silent Night Samba, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Tannenbaum Salsa, Joy to the World Samba, We Three Kings Waltz, Auld Lang Syne.

The Hot Club of San Francisco – Cool Yule – Azica Records AJD-72242 ***** [www.azica.com]:

(The gypsy-jazz group is joined by guests: Isabelle Fontaine, Pazzo and the Hotheads, Le Jazz Hot Trio, Due Gadjo, The Ivory Club Boys & The Goold Yule Philharmonic)

Now here’s a holiday album to perk up my ears! The founder of the SF-based gypsy jazz group, Paul Mehling, says they had considered a holiday CD for years, and decided to make their 12th album just that. The title tune is by Steve Allen and became a holiday hit for Louis Armstrong. They also pulled out Duke Ellington’s re-interpretation of the Dance of the Suger-Plum Fairy from his Nutcracker Suite (retitled Sugar, Rum, Cherry). They have Django-jazzed up a number of holiday favorites, as well as completely reimagining such chestnuts as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells. Those become a Latin-flavored Don Rodolfo and a twisted Djingle Bells respectively. Vince Guaraldi’s Skating, from his Peanuts score, is heard in a jazz waltz medley with Carol of the Bells. Never mind that Django and Grappelli never did a holiday album, the Hot Club has finally given gypsy jazz fans a most enjoyable one.

TrackList: Cool Yule, Don Rodolfo, Carol of the Bells medley, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Djingle Bells, Sugar Rum Cherry, I Wonder as I Wander, March of the Toys, The Christmas Song, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Auld Lang Syne.

Eban Schletter’s Cosmic Christmas – Oglio Entertainment Group OGL89155-PRO:

What IS this? Eban Schletter is a theremin-player and performer who evidently created this score for performances projected in the Glendale, CA Planetarium.  The idea is to take Christmas to outer space.  He attempts to create a sonic vision of yuletide spirit adrift far into the galaxy. A bad idea and a poor excuse for a holiday album.  There is a recurring annoying voice of a military satellite, some original songs with vocals, and several holiday favorites such as We Three Kings – but with simple melody on the theremin enmeshed in huge reverberations. Schletter doesn’t seem to know there’s no sound in outer space.

— above reviews John Henry

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