BRITTEN: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28; St. Nicholas, Op. 42 – Sally Price, harp/ Zoe Brown, Katherine Watson, soprano/ Allan Clayton, tenor/ Luke McWatters, treble/ Boys of the Temple Church Choir/ Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/ Holst Singers/ Catherine Edwards, Jonathan Higgins, piano/ City of London Sinfonia/ Stephen Layton, conductor – Hyperion CDA67946, 73:30 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
2103 marks the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and Hyperion is trying to jumpstart it with the release of distinctively Christmas-themed choral music. It was on the way home on an Atlantic crossing in 1942, after the composer had some manuscripts confiscated (secret documents? Evidently the authorities were concerned about coded transmissions in the notes…) that he began the composition of A Ceremony of Carols, based on carols found in a Halifax, Nova Scotia anthology he picked up before departing. The scoring of these seven carols was for women’s voices and harp, though by now with the umpteen performances of the piece for boys’ choir, using women is far from the norm. But originally it was women, and that is how the premiere took place. Later, after some boys’ choirs picked it up (and the first published edition sold out almost immediately) Britten became convinced that that was the way he preferred to hear it, and consequently it was pushed in that direction. He also added an interlude for harp and one further carol, “That yonge child”, along with the device of procession and recession, so that within a year the whole thing was finally wrapped up. It is easily one of the composer’s most beautiful, tuneful, and popular works, performed hundreds of times all over the world each year. The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (with the ladies) sings it beautifully, along with fine harp work by Sally Price. Excellent competition is provided by the Robert Shaw Singers on Telarc, also using women’s voices. (By the way, the British authorities confiscated the piece when he got to England!)
St. Nicholas—a cantata for tenor solo, mixed chorus, piano duet, organ, strings, and percussion—made quite a splash in 1948 as the highlight of the very first concert of the Aldeburgh Festival. Eric Crozier, Britten’s librettist for Albert Herring, collaborated on the narrative for St. Nicholas, based on the model of Haydn’s Creation. The work is very complex, as the scoring indicates, and is divided into nine sections starting with an introduction and the birth of Nicholas to his death, close to 50 minutes in length. The scoring was not finished until less than a week before the first performance, at Cambridge in 1948. It was an instant success in the public mind, though critical reaction was mixed. If we are to believe that there are only seven current recordings, then perhaps the critics had the last word—the piece is not performed often, perhaps because of the odd forces and rather extended length. But it is one of the composer’s finest choral/orchestral works with infinite examples of melody and exciting dramatic episodes even if it has faded from the public eye. Recordings like this, with the rare combination of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the magnificent Holst Singers, should go a long way to paving the way for resurgence. The performance is easily all one could ask for, though an earlier Naxos reading with Steuart Bedford conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, Tallis Chamber Choir, and the BBC Singers is also very good. That release also features Christ’s Nativity and Psalm 150 by Britten, sung to perfection. I would give the tip of the hat to this release for the Cantata and for the Carols (and really vivid sound), but the other release has a lot to offer and is quite cheap as well. Get both!
Nine Lessons and Carols – Ben-San Lau, organ/ Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Stephen Cleobury, conductor – Kings College KGS0001 (2 CDs), 110:51 [Distr. by Intermusica] ****:
It’s hard to believe that a service designed way back around 1880 by the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Benson, then Bishop of the Cathedral of Truro, to keep the men of the parish out of the pubs until after closing time on Christmas Eve, would become one of the most famous religious services in the entire world, broadcast to millions on radio and television each year, and causing a queuing line outside the church that can last up to four or five days! Benson “arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons which were read by various officers of the church, beginning with a chorister and ending, though different grades, with the bishop.” So we see in the beginning that there were to be nine lessons and nine carols—since then the number of carols has expanded exponentially, while the number of lessons remains the same.
The service itself guides the worshipper through the basics of the Nativity story, and was expanded upon by Eric Milner-White, senior chaplain to the 7th infantry division, who in 1918 adapted the Truro service for King’s College, the place where pre-WWI he had served as chaplain, and recently returned. The war and its enormous losses inspired him to recreate the certainties and innocence of the childhood experience of Christmas. The BBC began broadcasting it in 1928, and has done so every year save one. The service itself today is almost exactly the same as in 1918, and this recording (from the 2010 service) includes six of the carols from the 1918 performance.
Recordings and videos of this service are legion, including recordings with Stephen Cleobury as the conductor, available on EMI. In this case, like so many others, it appears that King’s has taken to recording itself and releasing it under its own auspices. The original recording is not state of the art—48kHz/24 bit PCM—but still very good. The choir and performances are remarkably consistent with what we hear every year from this source, so if a choice is made it might be for repertory or sound. Sound is also very consistent and I hear nothing on this recording that makes me pine away for some older versions. There are six commissioned carols on this release (they commission at least one every year) plus the usual plethora of standard carols, some done in standard versions while others more decorative and elaborate. It’s hard to go wrong with carols from this source, and every decent Christmas collection should have at least one recording of the King’s College service. This one will serve that function nicely.
Once in royal David’s city – arr S. Cleobury
Herefordshire Carol – arr. R. Vaughan Williams
Adam lay ybounden – B. Ord
A Virgin most pure – arr. S. Cleobury
In dulci jubilo – arr. R. L. de Pearsall
If ye would hear the angels sing – P. Tranchell
Sussex Carol – arr P. Ledger
God rest you merry, gentlemen – arr D. Willcocks
A tender Shoot – O. Goldschmidt
Dey ar en ros utsprungen – M. Praetorius, arr. J. Sandstrom
Hymne a la Vierge – P. Villette
Sunny bank – P. Hurford
Maria Wiegenlied – M. Reger
The holly and the ivy – arr. J. Nixon
While shepherds watched – desc. S. Cleobury
Illuminare, Jerusalem – J. Weir
Christmas Carol – E. Rautavaara WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Ding! Dong! Merrily on high – arr S. Cleobury
Hark! The herald angels sing – desc. D Willcocks
In dulci jubilo – J. S. Bach
The Christ Child – G. Jackson (2009)
Now comes the dawn – B. Dean (2007) WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Misere’ nobis – M.A. Turnage (2006) WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Mary – D. Muldowney (2008)
Christmas Eve – T. Davies (2011) WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
All bells in paradise – J. Rutter WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Machet die Tore weit: Choir and Organ music for Advent and Christmas – Hymnus Boys’ Choir of Stuttgart/ Kay Johannsen, organ/ Rainer Johannes Homburg, conductor – MDG multichannel SACD 902 1725-6 (2+2+2), 65:41 [Distr. by E1] ***1/2:
I’ve never been that keen on boys’ choirs; the unremitting treble tone of a long program gets under the skin a little too easily. Yet the 111-year-old Hymnus Choir produces a robust and severely-tuned choral sound that fortunately is balanced nicely by the lower voices—something overlooked in many boy choir albums. And to make sure that monotony doesn’t set it, conductor Homburg heads off the problem by using the organ, cello, and violone for the basso continuo, with the addition of three percussionists. This means that a few of the pieces may not exactly be historically correct, but hey, it’s Christmas, so who cares?
This is an excellent collection of early to middling modern music, all of it tunefully suitable for the season and infused with a spirit of joy and excitement, something often missing in the plethora of seasonable albums that flood the Christmas gates every year. MDG’s surround sound is very nice. In the meanwhile, while not the greatest Christmas album I have ever heard it certainly is far from the worst, and the sound and committed performances might be just enough to keep your eggnog nice and piping hot.
—All above reviews: Steven Ritter
“A Christmas Festival: Brass Band of Battle Creek” – Music by ADOLPHE ADAM, LEROY ANDERSON, HANDEL, VICTOR HERBERT, and MYKOLA LEONTOVITCH [TrackList follows] – Brass Band of Battle Creek – MSR Classics MS1425, 38:57 ****(*):
Recorded live in concerts at Kellogg Auditorium in Battle Creek between 2006 and 2011, immaculately produced and engineered, this 31-member Brass Band of Battle Creek (no reed instruments or strings) sounds like the kind of first-rate band Lawrence Welk once made famous, veering unintentionally at times towards Monty Python bland idiocy.
While their excellence purely as an ensemble is clear in every measure, not just for individual excellence and virtuosity but their ability to blend and collaborate, the Band’s preferred and most comfortable style is totally MOR starting with “A Christmas Overture” by the Seattle Symphony’s new Pops Director Jeff Tyzik and continuing with a great, smooth rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” and some wonderfully anachronistic Handel, before finishing up with a rousing reading of Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Overture” medley.
In addition to providing an appropriately warm acoustic for the more sentimental numbers, the ample spaces of Kellogg Auditorium provides its share of audiophile thrills including a spectacular euphonium solo by Steven Mead in “O Holy Night” and a big arrangement of James Pierpont’s “Motown Jingle Bells” by the Empire Brass Quintet’s legendary tubist, Sam Pilafian. In less than 40 minutes, the Battle Creek band says a lot.
“Horns for the Holidays” (TrackList follows) – Dallas Wind Symphony/ Jerry Junkin – Reference Recordings RR-126 HDCD, 62:42 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
This is the first recording of holiday music from the nation’s leading professional wind band. The dozen tracks include many of the expected Christmas favorites, but in sparkling new arrangements for concert band. And several of the other selections will be completely unexpected: such as David Lovrien’s “Minor Alterations,” which is subtitled “Christmas Through the Looking Glass.” It takes familiar Christmas tunes, puts them in minor keys and mixes them all up for a musical game of hide and seek.
The longest work here—the 14-minute Russian Christmas Music—uses Russian Orthodox Church music as well as Russian folk music in its makeup. It came about when composer and wind band leader Alfred Reed was asked to “compose something Russian.” The closing track—”Christmas and Sousa Forever”—is also something quite different. Composer Julie Giroux mixed Christmas carols with familiar standards of John Philip Sousa for a rousing finale to the CD. Recorded in the I.M. Pei-designed Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the HDCD is a exciting combination of brass, woodwinds and percussion.
Christmas in Brass [TrackList follows] – Gabriel V Brass Ensemble/Extol Handbell Choir/ David Chalmers, organ – Gloria dei Artes GDCD 054, 56:59 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
This is the second solo recording by the Gabriel V Brass Ensemble, who usually collaborate with the Gloriae Dei Cantores choir. They play everything from early Venetian School to contemporary works. Although the CD opens with an arrangement of a work by Bach and includes two arrangements for brass of Gregorian Chants, most of it showcases brass works from the 20th century. While some are serious works such as Daniel Pinkham’s Gloria and Michael Hale’s Veni, others are lighter standards like Joy to the World and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. The handbell group is not overused, coming in only on appropriate tunes such as the latter. The brass ensemble has a very full and rich tone and is well-recorded.
Hear the Singing and Playing of Music (Es singt und klingt mit Schalle) [TrackList follows] – New Children’s Choir, Hamburg/ Elbeblech Brass Quintet/ Moritz Schott, organ/ Ulrich Kaiser, dir. – Rondeau ROP6024 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
This CD on a German label devoted mainly to choral music is a sort of recorded version of live performance these forces. The diverse program ranges from an 11th century Gregorian chant-based work to Advent and Christmas pieces of the Baroque and Romantic periods, and also includes some contemporary works. The concert is broken up by some purely instrumental pieces played by the brass quintet or organ or both together. Brass pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli and organ selections by Guilmant and Karg-Elert are among them. Preludes to some of the individual pieces were composed by the group’s director, Ulrich Kaiser.
—Above reviews by John Sunier
Knoxville Jazz Orchestra – Christmas Time Is Here – Knoxjazz, 65:49 ****½:
(Vance Thompson – flugelhorn, conductor, arrangements; Alan Wyatt – assistant conductor; featuring Gregory Tardy – tenor saxophone, clarinet; Tim Green – alto saxophone; Dan Trudell – Hammond B-3 organ; and many others)
The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, a collection of 17 talented jazz musicians from Tennessee, has released a compelling holiday album. With guest stars Gregory Tardy (tenor saxophone), Tim Green (alto saxophone) and Dan Trudell (Hammond B-3), a superb collection of Christmas standards has been arranged for big band. The orchestra manages to capture the spirit of the season with vigorous jazz inflection. The opening cut (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) establishes a sentimental mood with fluid tenor saxophone lines by Tardy, shaded by the band. Jaunty swing imbues “Let It Snow” with a duo of trombonists (Don Hough, Tom Lundberg). “Deck The Halls” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” continues with the sprightly vibe.
There is an intriguing gospel inflection in “Go Tell It On The Mountain” as Trudell adds Sunday morning hymnal intensity on Hammond B-3. Another traditional piece (“Children Go Where I Send Thee”) is transformed by a spirited a capella intro by the Church Street United Methodist Choir and finishes with fever-pitch vocals by the Community Evangelistic Presbyterian Church Choir. Even with Tchaikovsky (“Russian Dance”) the arrangement combines freewheeling solos (Mark Tucker/alto saxophone, Vance Thompson/trumpet, Rusty Holloway/bass) with the core melody structure. A graceful interpretation of Vince Guaraldi’s inimitable “Christmas Time Is Here” features Bill Swan on piano. All of the wistful tenderness is surrounded by large ensemble eloquence. Vocalist Jill Andrews contributes a supple reading on “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. This is countered by a bossa nova transition that glows in the warmth of Thompson’s flugelhorn. Every track has musical texture and soulful resonance.
Christmas Time Is Here is great holiday music and even better, jazz!
TrackList: Have Yourself A Merry Christmas; Let It Snow; Deck The Halls; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; Go Tell It On The Mountain; I’ll Be Home For Christmas; Do You Hear What I Hear?; Russian Dance; Jingle Bells; A Not-So Silent Night; Christmas Time Is Here; Children Go Where I Send Thee
Song of Simeon – A Christmas Journey [TrackList follows] – Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship – Willis I Music *****:
(Will Scruggs, saxes; Brian Hogans, piano; Dan Baraszu, guitar; Tommy Sauter, doublebass; Marlon Patton, drums; Kinah Boto Ayah, percussion; plus horn ensemble)
This is the most exciting jazz or pop-flavored Christmas album I’ve auditioned this year. Scruggs wanted to create a musical journey thru the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative, using ancient canticles, hymns, carols and folk melodies. The 11 pieces formulate the story of the birth of Christ in a layered chronology, all instrumental. Scruggs recruited a number of fellow musicians and they all collaborated on the arrangements and planning of the material. Every band member participated, and the result is a very meaningful work which also swings. Scruggs himself is a standout on both tenor and soprano sax, and Brian Hogans’ piano often supports the lead instruments as well as taking some solos. Brian also plays sax on some of the tracks. This independent production from Tucker, Georgia, should get more attention this holiday season.
Part I: The Glory
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; The Annunciation – Gabriel’s Message; Song of Mary – Magnificat; God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman; Song of Simeon – Nunc Dimittis; Go Down, Moses
Part II: The Light
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; We Three Kings; The Huron Carol; Ideo Gloria; Joy to the World
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (compilation) [TrackList follows] – Justin Time JUST 245-2 ****:
This is a most enjoyable sampler of sorts from the leading jazz label, based in Montreal. About half of the 13 tracks here have not been previously released on CDs, so it’s not completely a reissue compilation. There are several surprises among the 13 tracks, such as “O Holy Night” performed by a tango quartet! And the performers are nothing to sneeze at either, including: Diana Krall, Hank Jones and Rob McConnell. The album has a 2011 date on it, so I guess it’s being promoted for a second time around.
Lovers’ Holiday – Jason Paul Curtis, vocals, with Swinglab & Swing Machine [TrackList follows] – self ****:
If you’re in the mood for light holiday songs delivered by a jazz vocalist in the style of Sinatra, this is your CD. Swinglab is the trio back Curtis, with Ray Mabalet on piano. Swing Machine is an 18-piece big band which supports Curtis on many of the dozen tracks. There are some unexpected tunes here, such as “Our Time of Year,” “Good This Year,” and the hilarious “Blue Friday,” which is about a guy dragged along to his partner’s foray into the maddening crowds of a Black Friday department store sale. Five of the tunes are originals from Curtis. The arrangements are great and Curtis’ delivery is straight ahead and not too overdone. The album title suffers from the widespread current ignorance of proper punctuation, with no apostrophe on Lovers.
1. Our Time of Year (Jason Paul Curtis)
2. Let it Snow (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne)
3. Christmas Time is Here (Vince Guaraldi)
4. Good This Year (Jason Paul Curtis)
5. Blue Friday (Jason Paul Curtis)
6. Lovers Holiday (Jason Paul Curtis)
7. You’d be So Nice to Come Home To (Cole Porter)
8. In the Still of the Night (Cole Porter)
9. I’ve Got My Love to Keep me Warm (Irving Berlin)
10. You’re Something (Steve Allen)
11. Winter Wind (Jason Paul Curtis)
Kiss Me Beneath The Mistletoe – [TrackList follows] Donna Singer, vocals, with The Doug Richards Trio – Emerald Baby ***½:
Evidently this is the second CD from Singer and the Richards Trio, with time with a Christmas theme. Again, there are original contributions, including “On New Year’s Eve,” and “Christmas in My Heart.” Donna’s husband Roy wrote four of the songs. A few of the tracks are strictly instrumental, with the deft Doug Richards Trio, featuring Doug on doublebass and Bill Alfred’s piano. There is a guest guitarist and composer, Jeff Otis, who contributed the instrumental “Christmas Is Near.” Also a quartet of guest vocalists, and the session’s engineer admits in the promo sheet to some “digital augmentation” to make the small group of vocalists sound larger. Vocalist and trumpeter Luis Camacho is one of the guests, and joins Donna in duet on two of the originals. He recently won an “Outstanding Jazz Soloist” award from BMI. The CD title is bit much (at least it’s not related to the Justin Bieber hit), and Singer’s voice is sometimes rather buried in the mix, not upfront-sounding, but this is still a worthwhile jazzy holiday effort.
12. Winter Wonderland
—Above reviews by John Henry