16 Christmas CD & SACD Reviews – 2014
“Welcome Yule: Choral Favorites for Christmas” [TrackList follows] – Sursum Corda/ Lester Seigel – MSR 1485, 59:46 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Well, Thanksgiving is now over and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and if this batch of recordings is any indication, it will surely be a banner year for seasonal music lovers. One of the first surprises to come my way is this recording by the 20-person Canterbury United Methodist Church Choir in Mountain Brook, Alabama, under the direction of Lester Seigel. Honestly, with some of the lesser-known groups, all of which seem to feel the need for recording Christmas albums, you never know what to expect, and though Sursum Corda is not foreign to the process (their Illumine Our Hearts album previously whetted my appetite). This has to be considered a big effort for them.
It pays off—of each release in this series of reviews, I think that this one is the one that will stay with me longest. It’s not just the singing, which is splendid, and far beyond what you might expect of a church choir, it’s the tasteful arrangements, perfect blend of old and new, untried and true (the Charpentier was a real bombshell), and most of all the spirit behind the performances is radiant and infectious. This is an easy recommendation.
TrackList:WILLIAMETTA SPENCER: Welcome Yule! ANTON BRUCKNER: Virga Jesse Floruit MALCOLM ARCHER: O Magnum Mysterium [arr. Edward T. Chapman]: Born Today Is The Child Divine GABRIEL JACKSON: The Christ Child MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER: MESSE DE MINUIT POUR NOËL [French carol arr. Matthew Culloton]: Angels We Have Heard On High [arr. Jon Washburn]: The Golden Vase Carol [arr. Lester Seigel]: Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head RICHARD FELCIANO: Somerset Wassail FRANZ GRUBER [arr. Lumsden]: Silent Night [English carol arr. Miles Ramsay]: Deck the Hall HUGH MARTIN [arr. Molly IJames]: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas JACQUES PIERPONT [arr. Ralph Allwood]: Jingle Bells NORBERT GLANZBURG: Noël, C’est L’Amour [arr. Arthur Warrell]: A Merry Christmas
This is the fourth recording of carols by Paul Hillier, and the third volume of this particular series. The standards set by the previous two are well-known to Christmas music buffs, combinations of carols and Christmas songs, and liturgical settings from around the world. This one is no different except this time we have the very fine Chamber Choir of Ireland, along with a concomitant mix of some Irish music too, as one might expect. Hillier in fact is the arranger on the vast majority of these pieces, and while I am not totally convinced about all of them (some have a modernist touch to them that to me doesn’t quite work) by and large they are excellent examples of the arrangers’ art that one will be more than happy to have playing away during the Yuletide season.
The sixteen-member choir sings radiantly at All Hallows College Chapel in Dublin, captured to perfection as only Harmonia mundi can do in these types of choral outings, and the surround sound—also practiced magnificently with this label—so defines the genre here as well. Glorious music for a glorious time of year, guaranteed to make the hardest hearts soften.
Antiphon I: O Sapientia plainchant, O come, all ye faithful, Remember, O thou man, Antiphon II: O Adonai plainchant, Adam lay ibounden, Gaudete! Christus est natus, Sweet was the song the Virgin sung (Henry COWELL), Antiphon III: O Radix Jesse plainchant, Carol (Gerald BARRY), Heissa, Buama, Antiphon IV: O Clavis David plainchant , Merk auf, mein Herz (JC BACH), Antiphon V: O Oriens plainchant, If angels sung a Savior’s birth Joseph (STEVENSON), Winter (Daniel READ), Antiphon VI: O Rex Gentium plainchant, Gesù bambin l’è nato, Away in a manger, An Teitheadh go héigipt Eamonn (Ó GALLOBHAIR), Suantraí ár Slánaitheora traditional, (arr. Fiontán Ó CEARBHAILL), Antiphon VII: O Emmanuel plainchant, Behold a silly tender babe, Ding Dong Merrily on High (Arbeau/Woodward)
Lux de caelo, or “light from heaven” is another Harmonia mundi release that celebrates a span of Nativity music from Praetorious to Webern, America to Europe, in both choral-only and orchestral-accompanied works recorded at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, in London. The Claretons are a larger choir than what we have seen in these reviews to this point, and they sound it—full, lush, a little more distant in microphone pickup, with consequent loss of unanimity in places. But this is not a detriment to this otherwise fine release.
I had some reservations about a previous Christmas album because of questionable arrangements and even the worthiness of some of the selections. Generally speaking there are no such qualms here, and the addition of orchestral forces adds to the degree of interest not present in the other release. And they also have a recent Lenten recording which is solidly acceptable and inspiring.
All in all the variety of music and the nuanced readings of these oft-times difficult pieces make for an enthralling seasonal experience, sung with passion and warmth.
TrackList:Bach, J S: In dulci jubilo, BWV368 Britten: A Boy was Born, Op. 3 theme Mathias: A babe is born Mendelssohn: Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden Pettman: Gabriel’s Message Praetorius, M: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Quem pastores laudavere; Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen; In dulci jubilo Ross, Graham: Lullay, my liking (world premiere recording); Tu scendi dalle stele (Trad. Italian); Still, Still, Still (Austrian Carol) Rutter: Nativity carol Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden, Op. 13 Swayne: Coventry Carol, Op. 77, No. 4 (world premiere recording) Tavener: Hymn to the Mother of God trad.: Old Basque Carol; Riù, Riù, Chiù; Spanish Carol Vaughan Williams: The truth sent from above Webern: Dormi Jesu, Op. 16 No. 2 Willcocks, D: Quelle est cette odeur agréable?
“Christmas with the Shepherds” = MORALES: MISSA QUERAMUS CUM PASTORIBUS for 5 voices; Pastores Dicite; MOUTON: QUERAMUS CUM PASTORIBUS for 4 voices; Puer natus est nobis; Noe, Noe; STABILE: Quaeramus cum pastoribus – The Marian Consort/ Rory McCleery – Delphian DCD34145, 62:55 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Don’t be fooled by the title of this release; this is not your average Christmas program, but a rendition of some Renaissance music by a composer who remains to this day in the shadow of Josquin—Jean Mouton. These pieces, with the theme of the shepherds, make for a nice change in a season that all too often sits upon its standard fare laurels. The motet Quaeramus cum pastoribus remained in the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel for over 100 years after its composition about 1515. Cristóbal de Morales, at that time a singer in the papal chapel, used the motet as the basis for his mass of the same name. Later on, and a premiere recording here, this motet served as the inspiration for yet another one to the same text by Annibale Stabile. On this recording the motet is sung first, followed by the Morales Mass with interspersions of motets by Mouton and Morales between the mass movements.
The Marian Consort is a fine group, using mostly one to a part with the exception of a couple of movements, again according to the notes “allowing clarity of texture and subtlety and flexibility of interpretation”, which is really nonsense—with this attitude all the world would ever know is chamber music! But you cannot fault the singers, young, enthusiastic, and quite adept technically and musically, and the presentation of this music is not only welcome but somewhat important as well, director McCleery himself preparing the performing editions. A nice spice to the usual Christmas fare, well-recorded, and easily recommended.
“A Britten Holiday” = Jubilate Deo in E flat; The Sycamore Tree; The Oxen; The Holly and the Ivy; Prelude & Fugue on a theme of Vittoria; A Boy Was Born, Op. 3; King Herod and the Cock; A Hymn to the Virgin; A New Year Carol; Antiphon, Op. 56b; Chorale on an Old French Carol; Christ’s Nativity – Cantate Chamber Singers/ Gisele Becker/ Eric Plutz, organ and piano – Raven OAR-945, 68:06 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The Cantate Chamber Singers is one of the finest and best-known small chorale ensembles in the Washington, DC area. Gisele Becker has been at the helm since 1994 (as well as highly active in many choral groups in the District) and has molded the group into a tightly-focused and extremely versatile bunch who are willingly to take on a wide variety of repertory and non-traditional pieces. The choice here is Benjamin Britten, and this recital contains many known and lesser-known works that demonstrate the remarkable breadth and creative impulses of the composer when it came to that most British of holiday seasons, Christmas.
This is an excellent collection of pieces that vary in mood and texture, with sufficient variety to demand close and attentive listening. The holiday spirit is present in each, with some of the composer’s most effective and lyrical writing. If you don’t know Britten’s Christmas music, this is a good place to start. Sonics from the Church of the Epiphany in DC are excellent.
Since 2000 the Schola Antiqua of Chicago has been turning in outstanding performances of music written from the year 1600. This is a fine album of the famous “O” antiphons, summoning Christ by different titles, and imploring various things of him. They are nicely rendered, making for a calming and refreshing opening to an Advent program.
The last carols make for nice icing on this Nativity cake, though the Mass is the big draw here. I can’t fault the execution, even less the spirit of this piece, only tangentially involved with the Advent season as it refers to the Immaculate Conception of Mary and not the birth of Jesus. Yet there is a raspy tone in some of the high men that I don’t find attractive and which makes an otherwise sterling production somewhat flawed. Nevertheless, it is a strong program and presents a session that might not be bona fide Christmas material but is still of great interest, Pierre de la Rue (1452-1518) is not one of your most commonly presented Renaissance composers.
TrackList: Seven ‘O’ Antiphons; Alma Redemptoris Mater; There is no rose; Hail Mary, full of grace; Nova, nova!; Rue, Pierre de la: Missa Conceptio tua
One stands in amazement looking at the 24 young people that make up the Cambridge choir of Gonville and Caius college, with an active musical tradition really in force since church composer Charles Wood became organist in the 19th century, though the colleges dates from 1348. The British seem to grow choirs on every street corner, a phenomenon possibly unchallenged anywhere in the world except maybe the per capita involvement of choral music in the American South. But this beautifully performed program is straight-no-chaser all the way, great singing with great organ accompaniment, and where else are you going to find Christmas ditties by Gabrieli and Anton Webern? The sound is broad and very English cathedral-sounding, and I find the whole thing quite enthralling.
TrackList:Gabrieli, G: O Magnum Mysterium Gruber, F: Stille Nacht arr. Geoffrey Webber Hewitt Jones, Thomas: What child is this? Howells: Here is the Little Door Karg-Elert: Resonet in laudibus, Op. 106 No. 3 Mathias: Wassail Carol Owens, M: The holly and the ivy Parsons, R: Ave Maria Pearsall: In dulci jubilo Poulenc: Videntes stellam (No. 3 from Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, Op.152) Praetorius, M: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen arr. Jan Sandström Rütti: A Patre unigenitus Shaw, M: Hills of the North, rejoice (Little Cornard) arr. Geoffrey Webber trad.: Rocking Carol arr. Edward Higginbottom Sussex Carol arr. David Willcocks Of the Father’s heart begotten arr. Magnus Williamson Tranchell: If ye would hear the angels sing Villette: Hymne à la Vierge, Op. 24 Walton: Make we joy now in this fest Webern: Dormi Jesu, Op. 16 No. 2
Medieval Babes would not have named themselves this without wishing the expected connotations of the title, and their looks certainly do not betray any flaws. But when you get beyond the photos of these six lovelies you discover that there is some real talent underneath the blush, and now for the second time they have totally enchanted me with a quite original and well-construed Christmas program that serves as balm to the ears after so many bombastic and “clever” constructions that show just how desperate many groups are to be “original” at this time of year. With six combinations of instruments and a plethora of vocal possibilities, the ladies have created another Christmas recital that will serve as far more than seasonal background music—I found myself distracted to complete attention each time I listened to this. You will too.
TrackList:1. I Saw Three Ships 2. We Three Kings 3. The Holly and the Ivy 4. Ther Is No Rose of Swych Vertu 5. Ding Dong Merrily on High 6. The Angel Gabriel 7. In the Bleak Midwinter 8. Good King Wenceslas 9. Gaudete 10. Once in a Royal David’s City 11. Veni Veni Emmanuel 12. Away in a Manger 13. In Dulci Jublio 14. The Coventry Carol 15. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen 16. Silent Night 17. Corpus Christi Carol
St. Paul’s is the only Roman Catholic boys choir school in the United States, as amazing as that sounds. It’s fortunate that it is a good one—having just celebrated their 50th anniversary, the choir is in stellar shape as this superb recording demonstrates. This is an old school, no-nonsense, seriously committed and flawlessly performed program of great substance, exquisite nuance, and a palpably emotional tone that could only come from true believers in the wonders of the Nativity season. Director of Music John Robinson has a lot of the English choral training in his blood, and imbues the choir with the discipline and authority of that tradition while never once betraying his own Catholic heritage in the selection—and even composition—of the pieces. This easily ranks as one of the best Christmas discs of the year, and one that I will listen to many times. The acoustics are wonderful, captured in vibrant fullness at the Church of St. Paul in Cambridge Mass.
TrackList:1. O Come All Ye Faithful 2. O Magnum Mysterium 3. Once in Royal David’s City 4. Omnes de Saba veniet 5. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing 6. Jesus Christ the Apple Tree 7. Mater Ora Filium 8. The Little Road to Bethlehem 9. The Infant King 10. In the Bleak Midwinter 11. I Sing of a Maiden 12. Puer Natus Est 13. Ding Dong Merrily on High 14. A Maiden Most Gentle 15. Still Still Still 16. Dominus Dixit 17. Angels We Have Heard 18. Angelus ad Virginem 19. There is No Rose
—All above reviews by Steven Ritter
“Sing Thee Nowell” – Christmas Choral Music [TrackList follows] – SMITH, A. / VERDELOT, P. / WESLEY, S.S. / SCOTT, J. / MCGLYNN, M. / BENNETT, R.R. – New York Polyphony – BIS multichannel SACD 2099 (9/9/14) 71:17 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
What an agreeable Christmas disc this is! While I really love holiday music, I’ve been bored with endless variations of The Little Drummer Boy and Adeste Fidelis.
Sing thee Nowell is the follow-up to the Grammy-nominated CD Times Go by Turns. Seven centuries of Christmas music is presented with new works composed for the ensemble by Michael McGlynn, Andrew Smith and John Scott alongside traditional medieval and Renaissance carols and motets by Clemens ‘non Papa’, Philippe Verdelot and Tomás Luis de Victoria. The wide-ranging sequence is anchored by Richard Rodney Bennett’s Five Carols, in which the sopranos Sarah Brailey and Elizabeth Baber Weaver augment New York Polyphony’s four voices.
Formed in 2006, New York Polyphony has become one of the leading vocal chamber ensembles, applying a distinctly modern touch to repertoire that ranges from medieval melodies to contemporary compositions. The talent heard here is abundant.
These superb performances were recorded in a lush audio environment at the Chapel of The American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ. I hadn’t heard most of these lovely pieces before, so the disc is a refreshing listening experience. It all ‘sounds’ like Christmas, but with very fresh material.
The SACD layer, in 5.0 sound, is just excellent. The unaccompanied voices are velvety smooth and well-placed up front, while the rear speakers provide just the right and light amount of ambience to open up the listening space.
TrackList:1 Veni Emmanuel Andrew Smith 2 Adam lay ybounden Geoffrey Williams 3 Gabriel Archangelus Philippe Verdelot 4 Gabriel’s Message Christmas Traditional 5 There is no Rose, Trinity Roll MS (15th century) Christmas Traditional 6 There is no Rose (Hereford) S.S. Wesley / Geoffrey Williams 7 There is no Rose John Scott / Christmas Traditional 8 Nesciens mater Byttering 9 O pia virgo Michael McGlynn / Irish Traditional 10 Nowell: Out of your sleep, Selden MS (15th century) Christmas Traditional 11 Nowell: Arise and wake Andrew Smith BENNETT: Five Carols: 12 There is no Rose 13 Out of your Sleep 14 That Younge Child 15 Sweet was the Song 16 Susanni 17 Sleep Now Alexander Craig 18 O magnum mysterium Tomás Luis de Victoria 19 Quem pastores laudavere Christmas Traditional 20 Quid petis, o fili Richard Pygott 21 Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle Christmas Traditional 22 Bethlehem Down Peter Warlock 23 Magi veniunt ab oriente Jacobus Clemens Non Papa 24 O Little Town of Bethlehem L.H. Redner / Lewis Redner
—Above review by Mel Martin
Every December Portland Oregon has around 200 tuba players congregate in Pioneer Place Park in the center of Portland and play special arrangements of Christmas carols. [You can hear it binaurally here (put on headphones).]
Tuba Christmas Concerts are played in hundreds of cities around the world now. The first one in New York City was held in 1974. Jim Self decided eventually to bring a group of professional musicians in to augment the larger tuba choir of the Los Angeles TubaChristmas. Harvey Phillips, who started the NYC series and taught Self, encouraged him to create a Christmas job for 12 tubas and euphoniums. Each year Self commissioned new arrangements for the group, and now the conducting and organizing is handled by Scott Wilkinson. This CD presents 20 of their best charts.
There are only a dozen tubas in the Hollywood Tuba 12, directed by tuba soloist Jim Self, who has done some solo tuba CDs himself. [Here’s one of them.] Accoding to Jim, the tuba is Santa’s favorite instrument; that seems about right. All the musicians here are friends, colleagues or students of Self, and he moved them around so there are different players on many of the tracks. he asked that all the original charts be for just tubas, and all the rhythmic grooves in the 12 tubas. He describes the recording sessions as reminiscent of the many recordings produced in L.A. in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when great arrangers had contracts with labels to produce LPs of their original instrumental charts. Now that’s all gone. All together he used 14 tubaists and 15 euphoniumists (bet you never expected that word!). Great fun!
TrackList: Jingle Bells; Angels We Have Heard on High; White Christmas; Let It Snow; Noel, Noel; Jolly Old St. Nicholas; Somewhere in My Memory; Winter Wonderland; ‘Tis the Season TUBA Jolly; Frosty the Snowman; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Valse des Fleurs; Here Comes Santa Claus; What Child Is This; Joy TUBA World; The Christmas Song; Santa Claus Is Coming to Town; Two Hanukah Songs (Mo’oz Tur / S’vivon); Sleigh Ride; Silent Night; Dog Tags.
A most enjoyable Christmas CD. There is an octet of mostly string players plus eight guests on guitars, cellos, piano, horn and harp, in a mix of classical, rock, jazz and bluegrass influences. The DePue Brothers have been playing Chirstmas programs together since they could hold their violins. There’s a welcome musical variety in the 14 tracks on this album. In addition to the “Linus and Lucy” track from the Charlie Brown Christmas there are plenty of the usual Christmas carols, but done in a welcome instrumental style, along with some jazzed-up Bluegrass. There are some vocals. There’s a wonderful jazz arrangement of “The Christmas Song,” and a medley of carols on the banjo. The only track I didn’t like was “The Fat Man.” Come on, we all know the Santa thing is silly, but this wasn’t really funny.
TrackList:1 Sleigh Ride DePue Brothers Band 2:56 2 Pat-A-Pan (feat. Don Liuzzi) DePue Brothers Band 2:52 3 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (feat. Don Liuzzi) DePue Brothers Band 4:38 4 Medley of Carols (feat. Michael Munford) DePue Brothers Band 5:41 5 Linus and Lucy DePue Brothers Band 4:11 6 Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring DePue Brothers Band 3:22 7 When It’s Christmas Time (feat. Wallace Depue Jr) DePue Brothers Band 3:52 8 Ding Dong Merrily on High DePue Brothers Band 1:11 9 Good King Wenceslas DePue Brothers Band 5:48 10 The Christmas Song (feat. Wallace Depue Jr) DePue Brothers Band 4:29 11 The Fat Man (feat. Alex Depue) DePue Brothers Band 4:21 12 Winter Wonderland (feat. Zachary Depue) DePue Brothers Band 3:32 13 O Holy Night (feat. Jason Depue) DePue Brothers Band 3:54 14 Ave Maria DePue Brothers Band 4:21
(Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, Cyrille Aimee, Hot Club of Detroit, Warren Wolf, Christian McBride Trio, Aaron Diehl, Sachal Vasandani, Cecile McLorin Salvant)
A nice compilation of a dozen tracks from the now-sizeable Mack Avenue library, with a few vocalists (Cyrille Aimee, Sachal Vasandani) but mostly instrumentals. My favorites were the two by Christian McBride’s Trio and “Skating” by the Hot Club of Detroit. While Pierre Giroux thought Aaron Diehl a great jazz pianist, I found his couple of tracks on this Christmas sampler the low points of the collection.
There are details on each selection. Sonics are first rate.
TrackList:1 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town Sean Jones 6:04 2 Littler Drummer Boy Tia Fuller 5:41 3 Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Cyrille Aimee 3:08 4 Skating Hot Club of Detroit 2:38 5 Christmas Time Is Here Warren Wolf 5:14 6 Silent Night Christian McBride Trio 6:50 7 Christmas Star Aaron Diehl 2:54 8 Sleigh Ride Aaron Diehl 5:13 9 Winter Wonderland Sachal Vasandani 3:23 10 Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto Christian McBride Trio 6:35 11 Carol of the Bells Warren Wolf 4:27 12 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Cécile McLorin Salvant
(Susie Arioli – voice & snare drum; Joran Officer – guitar, vocals, mandolin; Bill Gossage – bass & vocals; Michel Jerome Browne – guitar)
An enjoyable collection of holiday songs and Ms. Arioli’s vocals don’t become a bit tiresome during the dozen tracks. In addition to the usual Christmas tunes such as “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” she has selected such unexpected ones as “Blue Christmas,” “Call Collect On Christmas,” and even “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It was a pleasure to hear the familiar tune from La Posada, “La Peregrainacion.” This is another fine jazz album made possible by financial support from the Canadian government.
(Paolo Fresu – trumpet, Flugelhorn, electronics; Tino Tracanna – tenor & sop. sax; Roberto Cipelli – piano; Attlio Zanchi – doublebass; Ettore Fioravanti – drums; Daniele Di Bonaventura, bandoneon)
A nice CD of 11 tasteful jazz-flavored tunes. In addition to the usual Christmas numbers, there are three Latin ones that are lovely to hear. The addition of the tango instrument, the bandoneon, to more than just the three Spanish tunes brings a unique overall sound to the sextet that makes it stand out. There is also a Norwegian Christmas song, “Till Bethlehem.” Sonics are excellent. This is one I’ll surely add to my stack of Christmas CDs.
TrackList:01. White Christmas 02. I’ll Be Home for Christmas 03. Is sa notte profundha 04. Joy to the World 05. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 06. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) 07. Notte de Chelu 08. Till Bethlehem 09. O Little Town of Bethlehem 10. Naschid’est in sa cabanna 11. Adeste fideles
With the endless repetition of the same Christmas tunes on most of the more popular Christmas albums, it’s more than welcome to find a Christmas album with all ten original songs. Seems a bit strange that the only one of the ten tunes which is not composed by Rick Lang as the title says is the one he chose for the title tune and first track, “That’s What I Love About Christmas.” Well never mind, it’s still an enjoyable album.
In the notes Rick Lang talks about his ongoing love affair with winter and the Christmas season in New England. He wrote most of the songs with fond memories that go back to his childhood. The songs are spirited and fun without being corny or hackneyed. There is plenty of variety and everyone should be able to find one that is their favorite. There is one instrumental, “Snowfall,” and each of the others features a different vocal soloist, though one of them – Annie Sellick – gets three, including the title tune.
The band includes a fiddle and a mandolin, which is nice touch. The vocal interpretations of the various soloists harken back to the past in some ways but also show off the modern arrangements and interpretations of Lang’s music.
TrackList:That’s What I Love About Christmas Looks Like Snow Sleigh Full Of Toys Prepare A Place For Him Christmas Every Day Of The Year Home Made Christmas Old Man Winter Snowfall Angels From On High Where Was Baby Jesus Born?
—Above reviews by John Henry